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The bitter dividend of our freedom has spawned despair and ugliness in equal measure

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

That we have an ANC-led government which has repeatedly failed to lead a society in which the most vulnerable are given dignity, and one which has failed to grasp the nettle of what it means for a society to be powered by education instead of greed, is the bitter dividend of freedom.

Even for ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula, subjecting himself to the BBC’s Stephen Sackur on HARDtalk showed a supreme lack of self-awareness. Inevitably and embarrassingly, the interview produced gems such as, “if certain things are not resolved, we will become a failed state, but we are not journeying towards that direction” and “this load shedding has just made a mess of our country”.

The ANC always manages to distance itself from our country’s challenges in the manner of a passive observer of chaos.

That someone of such Lilliputian intellect as Mbalula has risen to such a powerful position within the ANC tells us everything we need to know about the party itself. Together with venality and corruption, this intellectual incapacity has had profound consequences for our country and our collective well-being.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021 results were released recently and one of its main findings is that “the percentage of Grade 4 children who can’t read in any language has increased to 81% in 2021”. 

This is a national crisis and a tragedy. It condemns the children of our country to a meaningless and empty future. For, robbed of the ability to read for meaning, what life awaits them?

The response of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was, as we have come to expect from this government, insipid. There certainly seemed to be no sense of urgency (or real intelligence) in her comments in Parliament when she said: “I want to repeat. Our kids can read. They can combine M, A and N to mean man. Many of them, like many of us here, are not able to operate at a cognitive level where we are coherent, we are systematic [sic].” 

She went on to say “the first critical priority is our new function of early childhood development. The second priority area is a cluster of critical topics, from our quest to strengthen our curriculum, focusing on the implementation of a curriculum with skills and competencies for a changing world in all public schools.” School infrastructure delivery was a third priority.

Otherwise, it is business as usual, it would appear. None of what Motshekga says addresses the fundamental challenge of a lack of accountability where literacy and numeracy happens: within schools.

Who holds underperforming teachers, heads of department and principals to account for what is happening within their schools? What are the consequences for schools when children cannot read? Or do they simply throw our collective hands in the air and blame “socioeconomic circumstances”? It seems too easy a way out to cover what often is deliberate dysfunction.

But it raises a deeper question about what South African society values. Do we in fact value education and the power that words and reading give us? Or, are we as a society enslaved to the ephemeral: money, tenders, cars and bling?

Standing in sharp contrast to the depth of knowledge and understanding that a decent education provides is the crass politics of materialism and its evil twin, State Capture. Ours is a ruling class detached from reality, but also fundamentally empty, with people content to wade in the shallows.

But this is a government which is interested only in the short-termism of power and gain. How else can we understand these Pirls results or indeed the thieving which happened at the height of a once-in-a-lifetime global health pandemic?

It is the single greatest failure of post-apartheid society that we have prized this crass materialism above the pursuit of knowledge and the values which would make our society a more humane one.

Equally, watching the students at the once-illustrious University of Fort Hare burn part of a sports centre which was doubling as an exam venue was yet another painful moment in our common life and one which brought more questions than answers. 

What kind of society have we birthed?

Burning is a leitmotif in South African life. The reasons are complex and some of it has its roots in our violent past. Some of it. 

Violence has always been a part of the South African landscape; physical violence, the violence of language and name-calling, and the violence of dispossession. From Peter Mokaba’s cry of “Kill the Boer! Kill the farmer!” to former president Jacob Zuma’s “Bring me my machine gun!”, violent imagery is regularly invoked in our politics.

In 2019, Julius Malema’s comment that “we [the EFF] are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now” was yet another example of the violence of public discourse in South Africa.

That we have an ANC-led government which has repeatedly failed to lead a society in which the most vulnerable are given dignity and one which has failed to grasp the nettle of what it means for a society to be powered by education instead of greed, is the bitter dividend of freedom.

That we have a country where the rule of law is under serious threat makes criminality commonplace. Actions mostly don’t have consequences in South Africa. After all, those who looted and burned in July 2021 during the insurrection walk free, and those who instigated the burning of our Parliament remain free too. 

It is this bitter dividend which has spawned despair and ugliness in equal measure. That ugliness was on full display at Fort Hare this week. How and why, we ask, even as we know that we cannot fully get to the bottom of such wanton destruction and disregard. 

At the core of the discontent is a society unmoored from constitutional values and one which fails the most vulnerable daily. But we have also lost the ability to speak to each other in respectful ways.

As Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton have written in their introduction to the excellent book they edited, Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Rethinking Public Life: “The old ways of mediating collective life — through public discussion of one kind or another — seem to be falling away, overtaken by a new order of public spectacle, combativeness, hate speech and even violence.”

Burning has become a potent and sad symbol of South African rage. Only destruction appears necessary and sufficient in the politics of now.

And so we continue muddling along despite the crumbling edifice.

In another tweet (how else?), it was Mbalula again who reacted to the 0.4% growth of the economy in the first quarter. “What a pleasant surprise!” exclaimed the breezy tweet.

If failure is one’s measure and the bar is that low, then perhaps this statistic can be labelled a “pleasant surprise”. The tweet’s casual tone showed just how little Mbalula understands about the economy, but also about the people (millions of them) behind the numbers. What does it mean to ordinary South Africans, desperate and vulnerable, when an economy is growing at this snail’s pace? These numbers should keep any government awake at night. 

A large part of the violence and unease at the heart of our society stems of course from the unbearably high rate of unemployment, which sits at 32.9% (on the narrow definition of unemployment). A governing party distracted by internecine battles and corruption, and which contorts itself ideologically, contributes to the sorry state of affairs. Along with work comes dignity.

In the latest Higher Ground series, Working: What We Do All Day, former US president Barack Obama (as narrator and almost-interlocutor) attempts to recreate what Studs Terkel described in his 1974 book, Working. “Working,” according to Terkel, was “about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash.” The times were different of course.

Richard Nixon was president and as the London Guardian review (2017) reminds us: “The world of work described feels altogether more stable and predictable than it does now. Working depicts a time just before great changes happened in the workplace — changes that no one in the book predicted. The concept of a work-life balance was decades away, as was the idea of a portfolio career; most of the men and women Terkel spoke to could expect to remain in one job until retirement… While revisiting the book is a reminder of how the world — with its e-jobs and virtual offices — has changed, it is also a reminder of what does not change: the desire for dignity and respect. ‘I’m a checker and I’m very proud of it,’ says Babe, a supermarket worker who had been doing the same job for almost 30 years. ‘I’m making an honest living,’ Roy, a 58-year-old garbage man, tells Terkel: ‘I don’t look down on my job in any way. I couldn’t say I despise myself for doing it. I feel better at it than I did at the office. It’s meaningful to society’.” (Read: Studs Terkel’s Working – new jobs, same need for meaning)

The Obama version is typically “Netflix glossy”, yet conveys important arguments for why work — dignified work — is key to the kind of society we want to build: “As a society, we get to decide what life looks like for working people. We can give people more dignity or less — those are the choices we make.”

Of course, a more detailed critique of the series would be its scant attention to structural inequality and the accountability of exploitative forces of capital — and indeed how Obama, during his presidency, dealt with those issues. 

Yet it leaves plenty of food for thought. One wonders how much less brutal, less violent, less bitter our South African society would be if the majority of people were not lingering at the bottom on social grants or nothing at all.

What would it look like for South Africans to live lives of dignity and meaning? Mbalula (and our largely absent President) should ponder this and join the dots if they so wish. DM

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  • Richard Owen says:

    thank you for this article. the core of the decline in South Africa (and Zimbabwe) lies in the shallowness and the triviality of the governing party leadership. As the author writes – bling is worshipped while illiteracy is ignored. The prospect of South Africa evolving into a thoughtful progressive nation is being increasingly diminished by these little men and women who rule but do not lead.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Surely the whole theory is to keep the people ignorant and uneducated. If you erase the questioning element, you create a compliant herd.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      As Verwoerd also wanted, but didn’t quite get, thanks to some determined grandparents and mission schools. Using the bible as his source, the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ description of black people was the major underlying reason for apartheid, and bantu education the outcome, for which we’re all suffering now.

  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    Oh, but you are so right. Our Minister of education defends the catastrophic PIRLS results with the defence that our 10 year-olds are literate insofar as they can read three letter words. It boggles the mind that the education policy maker of this country defends herself with such claptrap.
    Another detail of the PIRLS results, mostly overlooked, were that English and Afrikaans speaking 10 year olds made up the 19% of those who did meet the international norm. So guess who are the children left behind? The same group that were disadvantaged by Apartheid’s Bantu Education. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. Without a decent education, without skills development, without job opportunities, those essentials that endow people with dignity create the Hobbesian nightmare that life in this country has become.

  • David Schmidt says:

    Thanks Judith. An important and moving reflection. Our failure to provide good enough education to everyone is our biggest national failure since 1994 and its legacy lasts for lifetimes. Dignified work requires it.

  • Retief Joubert says:

    I do not share the generally accepted top-down view of society, esp in modern times: that our leaders are the moral compass and custodians of society’s morals. I increasingly see it that they are a reflection of the morals of a society, they are the mirror. SA has corrupt leaders because society is corrupt. The state is failing because society is failing.

    Maybe from the ashes a new morality will rise like the mythical Phoenix. Not sticking around to find out though.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
    Nelson Mandela

  • Craig McLachlan says:

    One of the biggest problems with our current government (and many other similalry dysfunctional governments worldwide) is the fact that they plan and impliment on politically focused 1 to 5 year cyles instead of public good focused 15 to 40 year cycles as all sucessful governments do. The Return on Investment (ROI) Period for the single best economic investment any government can make, namely education, is at least 20 years. The life cycles of critical economic infrastructure such as roads, sewerage & water networks and treatment works, electrical grids, etc. are all 15 to 40 years. The now very visible collapse of all of our public good infrastructure, education and health services across the country can be directly attributed to the unfortunate disregard for expert advice (anti intellectual? ) in favour of short term populist decision making that has predominated in government at all levels for the past 15 odd years.

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