Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What most South Africans don’t know, but can probably guess

The book by R.W. Johnson that I recently referred to, namely, How Long Will South Africa Survive? – The Looming Crisis (Jonathan Ball, 2015), is giving a lot of people nightmares, I’ll bet. Not only because of the unsustainable cost of the inflated public service, but for a lot of reasons, all set out in its 255 pages. It is a book that every responsible South African should read to be informed of the extent to which the ANC government has mismanaged the country’s affairs since it took office in 1994, and has allowed corruption on a massive scale to become the rule rather than the exception. I sincerely hope that people with integrity in the ANC have also read the book, to prod them in the direction of doing something decisive to root out the sources of corruption in the party as well as South Africa in broader terms.

And, lest anyone should immediately jump to the conclusion, that Johnson is putting forward a racist argument, that “blacks cannot govern” – ex-president Thabo Mbeki’s bugbear, according to him – this is not at all the case. He points to neighbouring Botswana, the country with the biggest per capita income on the African continent, to substantiate his claim that he is not arguing along these prejudicial lines at all. Botswana is, by all accounts, well governed by a black government; by contrast, South Africa has decidedly not been well-governed by the ANC. And Johnson – whom I had the privilege of listening to last week at a conference in Stellenbosch – not only constructs a persuasive argument regarding the deterioration of South Africa in virtually every sphere of social, political and economic life since the ANC took power in 1994, but backs up this claims with plenty of pretty frightening evidence.

Parts of the book read like a mafia crime novel, with jaw-dropping information about criminal networks and the “criminalisation of the state” – one heading (p. 23) reads: “KwaZulu-Natal: theatre of struggle – and criminality”. It is certainly not a book for the faint-hearted, and I know several people who refuse point-blank to read it, for fear of its effect on their morale. Probably among the most frightening, demoralising and downright debilitating parts of the book is the evidence he provides (interwoven with his mesmerising account of conditions in South Africa today) of the extent and deep-rootedness of the culture of corruption and “patronage” in the country, from the highest level of the state down to municipal level.

In a section titled “Origins of the Zuma system” (pp. 54-58) – following a gripping account of the origins of Jacob Zuma’s rise to power, including his decisive defeat of Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane in 2007 – Johnson describes the way that the ANC was restructured in nothing less than a neo-feudal manner under the new (double) president. It is a tale of “deals” between the president and those either already in, or aspiring to, positions of power in the provinces, where – in exchange for their unconditional loyalty – they were appointed (or confirmed) to these positions on the understanding that they can reap all the benefits (financial and otherwise) that come with the job. It is therefore not surprising that, after giving an account of several such “deals”, one reads (pp. 55-56):

“Thus the Zuma system. In effect, provincial premiers and party bosses were given a license to plunder provided they stayed loyal to the chief at the centre. Since the chief and his family were themselves becoming rich at a great rate, everyone understood the game. Hence the description of Zuma’s ANC (offered to me by one who fought in these wars) as ‘a federation of warlords.’ Each province in turn became a microcosm of the whole with local mayors and councillors plundering their municipalities, knowing that they could probably get away with this provided they remained staunchly loyal to the local party boss and premier. Problems arose when, as often in the Eastern Cape, the chairman of the provincial ANC and the premier were at odds, or when this dichotomy was seen at local level – for example in Nelson Mandela metropole (Port Elizabeth) – or when someone down the food-chain simply went too far and stole so much that major scandals or real political trouble erupted. Such eruptions happened continuously, for example when gross theft resulted in the breakdown of the health system in the Free State or in the failure of the water supply in Grahamstown and other parts of the Eastern Cape.”

A bleak picture indeed, compounded by what Johnson characterises as “An endless stream of scandals” (pp. 60-62), which includes a number of scandals in which the “ubiquitous Guptas” were involved. These also include one where – after announcing an ambitious provincial dairy farm scheme costing R570 million, with 370 cows that would supposedly produce 100000 litres of milk daily – the Free State premier, Ace Magashule, saw this scheme collapse in ruins because of sheer neglect. No fewer than 65 of the cows had died of starvation. The people who were supposed to manage the scheme were the premiers’ son, Tshepo Magashule, Duduzane Zuma, and the Gupta controlled company, Mabengela Pty Ltd.

On a more hope-inspiring note, Johnson sketches the “changing political landscape” after May 2011, where the local elections served as barometer indicating that all was not well in ANC-land. After having taken Cape Town in the 2006 local elections, and the whole of the Western Cape in the elections of 2009, the DA went on to increase its majority in Cape Town – despite the ANC’s determination to “liberate” the city after its first defeat there. However, although these elections (just as events in the economic sphere) “should have been a sharp wake-up call” (p. 64) to the ANC, “there was no real change”. The writing was on the wall, in other words, and – even more significantly – the recent local elections have added a whole new chapter on this wall, with DA coalitions now governing in no fewer than three of the metropolitan areas. In the recent address that Johnson gave at Stellenbosch he admitted that he would have to bring out a second edition of the book, to take account of events that have occurred since its publication in the first quarter of 2015.

Nevertheless, although these recent local election results are certainly a source of hope for improvement at all levels in the country, the rest of the book comprises a caveat against unwarranted optimism. Towards the end Johnson goes into a lot of economic and financial detail that leaves one in no doubt that the mismanagement of the country’s affairs – in tandem with virtual daylight robbery to enrich everyone in the patronage system, more recently – has brought South Africa perilously close to the proverbial “fiscal cliff”, which will be difficult to avoid.

This has resulted from many factors, such as the financial drain of the inflated public sector and the disappearance of billions of Rands from state coffers through corruption – mostly without “responsible” officials having to account for it, for example the minister of public works, Thulas Nxesi, who simply protested that he “had simply no idea” (p. 180) where the billions had gone that disappeared from his ministry during the 2012-2013 financial year, with no further consequences. In the final analysis South Africa is teetering on the brink, and only a miracle can prevent it from having to suffer the indignity of approaching the IMF – or perhaps the recently established BRICS fund – for a bail-out of sorts, with all the austerity measures that it would bring. The alternative to this is, as the saying goes, too ghastly to contemplate, but whichever way one looks at it, it has a Z in it.

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