I know many South Africans who say they consider South Africa to be the worst place on earth, yet they stay here locked up because there is nowhere else to go. I am not among this group. However, I often share with some of their painful and clearly unresolved dilemmas. In writing this to you, my schoolmates, I also have them in mind.
I welcome knowing how South African news is reported internationally. But I would appeal to those who send us all news of how awful South Africa is, to be more selective in what you send. more selective.
I am aware of what is being reported, thanks to friends and family who also share articles from different parts of the world. Ignorance and prejudice characterize most of these.
The best writing and critical analysis about the country (outside of some academic journals) is provided by some news platforms within South Africa itself.
Having asked you to try to avoid ignorant and biased reports, let me immediately stress that South Africa is indeed a country in deep crisis.
We have the shameful distinction of being the most unequal society in the world, with an unemployment rate of 42% – 46.5% among young people – and poverty levels a little different from what we saw under apartheid. Crime and unconscionable violence match these statistics. Anxiety and depression are national disorders affecting rich and poor alike.
Apart from some rabid white supremacists, this was not what we expected from Mandela’s new South Africa. Thus, the shattered dreams of most South Africans.
Hope and promise remain
However, there are realities of the new South Africa that should be celebrated, though they are often lost in the prevailing pessimism. Indeed, these overlooked realities are among the fundamentals that invite us to rekindle our dreams of a better South Africa. I am thinking here, first of all, of us – blacks and whites – who remain among the privileged.
I have said previously that the most powerful and intelligent criticism of South Africa comes from within South Africa. The right to speak freely, along with a press that is (virtually) unmatched in its freedom to publish and investigate everyone and everything, allows this to happen.
In addition, a weak though still active civil society takes full advantage of these freedoms.
We have a firm judiciary in protecting these constitutionally guaranteed political and civil liberties. (Though the guarantees of our Social and Economic Bill of Rights are another matter.)
Without the press, civil society and the courts, former President Jacob Zuma – who does nothing more than personalize our now orphaned dreams – will continue to preside over the plundering of the nation’s resources, while at the same time hollowing out the state to ensure that thieves remain intact, ensuring that they are free to Continue their plunder for self-enrichment.
These are the strong enduring foundations that many of us have forgotten in our despair.
Many will quickly point out that looting still occurs and that the thieves, who are known along with many details of their crimes, are still awaiting trial, let alone an actual conviction or a lengthy prison sentence. This is correct. We know him in many painful details because of our free press and civil society.
We have learned that delays in justice are due to the unimagined depth and breadth of corruption, including the fact that many of these Mafiosi are still in positions where they can protect themselves. This makes the process of ironing corruption more difficult. The chronic shortage of competent and honest people to fill vacancies adds to the difficulty.
Recognizing some of the challenges involved in reversing South Africa does not detract from the unacknowledged realities of our daily lives.
What we need is a clear acknowledgment of the two coexisting realities: the South Africa from which we would like to escape, along with the South Africa which asks us to stay – not on faith, but because things are changing for the better, albeit slowly.
ANC inaction and racial thinking apartheid
Two indisputable facts are worth remembering.
First, the ANC’s automatic response to what we now call “service protests” was met with utter disbelief in 1995. The ANC could not understand that “its people” should show visible anger towards ANC-led South Africa. Fresh as if in a metaphorical diaper.
The only explanation that made sense to them was to attribute the disturbance to a “third force”. This time, the third force is no longer the apartheid army and the secret police, along with the Inkatha Freedom Party of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The post-apartheid third force was supposed to be made up of foreign intelligence agencies—usually the CIA—and opposition political parties. The main “agitators” were framed as white intellectuals, especially of the foreign type. Despite occasional references to foreign-paid NGOs and their white leaders, the attribution of ongoing “service delivery” disruptions to a clandestine third force has ceased.
The ANC now accepts the blame.
Its inability to meet the basic needs of most South Africans makes it ask for more time, with (repeated) vows that it is now a converted ANC.
Second, most of us consider our racially segregated thinking to be normal.
Few remember – or know – that the “races” that created apartheid were gradually reintroduced into the new narrative of post-apartheid South Africa.
The ANC first took the lead in honoring the non-racial commitments in our new constitution. This has changed over time to the point where there is now a self-proclaimed faction within the ANC that represents what it calls Radical Economic Transformation (RET).
Rhett identifies the main enemy as white monopoly capital, with only the white part of this enemy being easily understood. These racist sentiments are openly led by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the third largest party in Parliament.
The so-called whites, coloreds and Indians – still ubiquitous – the three minority “races” that apartheid made – have good reason to fear.
The stereotype of homogeneous “whites” has become so normal, especially on TV and radio, that it is rarely challenged.
A typical example is the final episode of eNCA The power of truth, where Malusi Gigaba – a cabinet member who was forced to resign in 2018 following allegations of corruption against him – was interviewed. Among similar statements he said: “The biggest problem is the continued domination of the white minority in South Africa.”
This blanket reference to everyone considered to be part of the “white minority” was passed on without comment from the show’s host, Dr. J. c. Tapani.
However, Gigaba is restricted in comparison to what EFF leaders have to say about “white” and “Indian” minorities. EFF uses overt racist attacks on these minorities as its main appeal. Besides the apparent decline of the RET faction within the ANC, it helps that the EFF attracts only about 11% of the vote in national elections.
The questionable appeal of the racial narrative does not detract from the fact that being African is a huge advantage when it comes to getting a job, and that the advantage increases with the higher levels of skill required. The same applies to entering universities.
But it is important not to forget how limited the race ticket is among voters.
In the end, the main source of optimism has to be the evidence-rich fact that the fundamental problem is not with the ANC itself, despite its burdens of corruption and incompetence. Our economy is built on what Peter de Toit calls “big capital” in his 2022 bestselling book, Billionaires in the ANC: The Gambit of Big Capital and the Rise of the Few.
“Big Capital” in 1985, when the Du Toit story began, consisted mainly of the dominant mining companies, led by Anglo Americans. The “gambit” in the book’s title was to transform an ANC that was feared to be “steeped in Marxism” into one that accepted the realities of modern economics.
As we know nowThe maneuver wasn’t very risky, so a little convincing was needed. The economic orthodoxy of the time was to free capital from the shackles of state-imposed regulations. Everyone was supposed to benefit from the freedom restored to capital and the market by the “downward flow” from the rich to everyone else.
A number of small South African groups and individuals predicted that the neoliberal form of capitalism would lead to a sharp increase in inequality as the rich got richer without any trickle going to anyone else.
This is far from being an exclusively South African failure. Writing since 1982, American Economist John Galbraith said the bottom-up theory On the idea that “if you feed a horse enough oats, some will run across the road for sparrows.”
The Center for Information and Alternative Development – where I work – was formed in 1996 to monitor these expectations.
A reason common to all parliamentary parties is that the main challenges facing South Africa today are persistent – and growing – poverty, unemployment and inequality. What is lacking is any recognition of the inescapable link between these challenges and the neoliberal policies they all still support, despite differences on the details.
The unquestioned accuracy of the predictions is of immediate benefit to those familiar with the analyzes underlying the predictions. In the words of the Greek philosopher Antisthenes (445 BC to 365 BC): “A man must furnish himself with intelligence to understand or to hang himself.”
But the best understanding in the world is weak unless it mobilizes people in sufficient numbers to make a difference. And here those who think like me feel a failure, though the intelligence of understanding protects us from the complete darkness of despair. And so, we continue.
But, whether one agrees with this understanding or not, the other positives described above encourage active participation.
It is not just the ANC that recognizes the acute lack of capacity. Deploy the cadre into a defensive position. Eskom’s plea for the return of the able former employees they fired is an important precedent. Doctors—often retired but still able—offer their services in helping to educate young doctors in other parts of the impoverished world.
Lawyers are already doing this in South Africa.
Perhaps the most famous of these recent legal contributions are the free services being rendered to the victims of the vicious attack by eight members of the VIP Police Protection Unit which are provided at great public expense to our politicians.
There are many among us who are skilled and experienced in a variety of professions and can do the same. Rather than simply taking the pains of living in South Africa, many of them can make a difference in building a truly new South Africa.
We have a wonderful constitution. The challenge is to help give her the reality that most South Africans currently lack.
Let us actively participate in restoring hope. It is much better than the paralysis of despair. DM