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‘Stop the World – I Want to Get Off’

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Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

The title of a famous early 1960s West End and Broadway musical, ‘Stop the World – I Want to Get Off,’ may seem more relevant as we tread with trepidation from the tumult and turmoil of 2023 into what by all accounts will be a turbulent 2024.

Media headlines scream about poverty returning to the UK (did it ever leave?…Ask minorities and immigrants), no doubt compounded by the kamikaze Brexit decision. The US — which variously parades itself as a bastion and custodian of democracy — appears bankrupt … at least from a political leadership perspective … so much so that failed leaders (who treat law, order and the judiciary with contempt) may well return to the helm. Geopolitical power shifts to Asia. Megalomaniacs like Elon Musk loom large. Climate change wreaks havoc across the world. Closer home South Africans can evaluate 30 years of democracy by voting in the seventh general elections in 2024. 

Time magazine has contended that “2024 is not just an election year. It’s perhaps the election year. Globally, more voters than ever in history will head to the polls as at least 64 countries (plus the European Union) — representing a combined population of about 49% of the people in the world — are meant to hold national elections, the results of which, for many, will prove consequential for years to come”.

A polarised, fragmented post-Covid world is being torn asunder — narrow nationalism, ethnic tensions, and unjust wars in the Middle East and Ukraine (can wars be justified in the 21st century?). Quantifying the social, economic and humanitarian costs of wars is difficult. In Africa, 3.2 million people were displaced in 2023 due to conflicts  (and over the past decade, the total has added up to 40 million). 

Middle East conflict fallout

According to the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre, as of 13 December 2023, “at least 18,205 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, around 70% of whom were women and children, while about 50,100 others have been injured”. Also,  “more than 1,200 Israeli and foreign nationals in Israel have been killed, amongst them 36 children … Around 5,400 others have been injured”.  

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 9,614 civilians were killed in Ukraine. The Russiamatters blog, estimated that 200,000 Russian and 130,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed or seriously wounded.

As pan-African writer Mohamed Guleid has noted, “African nations, despite their geographical distance, find themselves entangled in the fallout from these conflicts. The repercussions materialise in disrupted trade flows, volatile commodity prices, and increased economic instability, posing additional challenges to countries already grappling with fragile economies”.

While our planet burns

Notwithstanding earlier scholarly and scientific disagreements (and denialism), in the 21st century, the evidence for climate change is compelling, with little room for doubt, debate or dissent. The year 2023 was the hottest on record and 2024 is likely to be worse. Quoting the Britain’s Met Office, Reuters reported  that the “average global temperature for 2024 is forecast to be between 1.34C and 1.58C above the average for the pre-industrial period of 1850-1900”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Too damn hot — what to expect as global climate crisis heats up in 2024

According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the poor in Africa are “highly affected by extreme weather and climate events and are often overrepresented in the number of individuals displaced by these events”. A key contention from a geopolitical perspective is that while Africa has contributed the least to the problem, it is the most vulnerable region in the world to climate change. Livelihood and food insecurity, water shortages, weather extremes (floods and droughts), spread of diseases, and human displacement present immediate climate change threats and challenges in Africa.

Legacy of corruption and crime

South Africa’s 30 years of democracy can be divided into three phases. The first five years were associated with the euphoria of the Mandela era, and the second five years with the relative stability of the democratic transition. The last 20 years can be regarded as wasted or lost years, and the evidence is compelling: Eskom, Transnet, Prasa, Portnet, SAA, Postnet, the collapse of Metros and municipalities — all victims of mediocre cadre deployment, rampant state capture and endemic corruption. (It is important to note that state capture preceded the main felons, the Guptas, who fine-tuned and master-minded the sleight of hand operations in partnership with all those who were named and shamed by the Zondo Commission and who are yet to don orange overalls). 

According to a World Bank Report released in November 2023: “High crime rates damage the economy and contribute to the misallocation and inefficient use of resources, inflicting an estimated cost of at least 10 percent of GDP every year (R700-billion in 2023). The World Bank drew attention to what is well-known in the public domain in South Africa:  “Crime reduces firms’ competitiveness, crowds out productive private and public spending, damages basic infrastructure, and affects people’s quality of life, all of which contribute to the misallocation of resources in the economy, reducing the country’s growth potential and the welfare of its citizens”. 

The 2023 Global Organised Crime Index ranked South Africa “seventh in the world out of 193 countries and third in Africa for mafia-style criminal networks and organised crime syndicates”. South Africa is an attractive haven for global criminal networks of every kind (e.g. drugs, money laundering, kidnapping, human trafficking, smuggling, hired guns) because there appears to be a seamless connection between criminals, some politicians, and some members of SAPS.  

Professor Saths Cooper, former Robben Island prisoner, argued that “South Africa beckons fearless leaders who are among us. South Africa deserves better; more of us who can serve selflessly, than those who are self-serving”.

Comeuppance or continuation

As it heads into an election year, the fortunes of the ANC continue to wane and it appears to be ethically, morally, politically and financially bankrupt. Over the past 30 years, the basic needs of the poor black majority (health, education, sanitation, housing, transport, welfare, safety and security) have been sacrificed on the altar of the ruthless, exponential greed of the new ruling elite and their cronies.  

In a candid self-appraisal, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “The ANC today is its weakest and most vulnerable since the advent of democracy. Our weaknesses are evident in the distrust, the disillusionment, the frustration that is expressed by many people towards our movement and government…driven by corruption”. 

Many are gleefully anticipating that the ANC will be voted out of power in 2024 (or at least experience the humbling process of a reduced majority). As opportunistic demagogues with dictatorial tendencies and messianic delusions lurk in the background and publicly embrace discredited bureaucrats, attack the treasury, judiciary and independent media with impunity,  the alternative to the ANC may well be too ghastly to contemplate…? 

A social media post succinctly captures what planet Earth needs in 2024: “The planet doesn’t need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds”. DM

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