Am I the only person who is tired of hearing about South Africa’s problems? One cannot have a meal these days without hearing about our “highest crime rate in the world” or our “highest Gini coefficient” or some other statistical badge which we wear with despair. This latest spate of violence is shocking. There’s no denying that. But to take those devastating tragedies and expand them like a blanket over the entire country and then to colour our nation in the blood red violence is simply not an accurate reflection of the facts.
While South Africa does have the highest crime rate in the world, it also is one of the best performing young democracies in the emerging world. Our centre has held for two decades. While our Gini coefficient is high and climbing, so is that of the rest — national inequality is at an all-time high globally. This is a fact of history and the result of the systemic nature of the economics and politics that have shaped the globe for the last century. I am not arguing for blind optimism but for rational pragmatism. The pockets of extreme violence and dehumanising degradation that are playing themselves out in South Africa today are more a result of our spatial divides and our material deficiencies than the lack of quality in our collective humanity.
South Africans are afraid of the future
It is simply not helpful to propagate black anger, white fear and populist discontent as a national pastime. If one looked at social media over the last two months during the #RhodesMustFall campaign, sporadic land occupations and recent #xenophobia, one may come to the conclusion that South Africa is burning. Yet, while these were going on, millions upon millions of South Africans were going about their daily tasks mindful of the interests of their children, their brothers and sisters and their friends. These millions of South Africans were working towards a better future for themselves and those they care about. The problem is that it is not sensational to post a picture of a domestic worker waiting for public transportation. A picture of a young South African taking the Gautrain or a Rea Vaya bus is simply not something that hundreds of Facebook users will like or the twitterati will retweet — it simply will not go viral. The result is that all these millions of South Africans are becoming preoccupied with the dark and desperate acts of a tiny minority who have themselves been brutalised by their horrendous conditions. Ironically, by being so obsessed with the worst among us, South Africans are spreading a narrative that informs a future of which we are all afraid and none of us would desire, instead of employing our energies to build the future we want.
Be concerned but keep hope alive
Denial will not be helpful either. The fact is, South Africa is in a crisis. The economy is not growing, youth unemployment has skyrocketed and the relationship between the ruling elites who run the place is dangerously bad. One gets the sense that we are in a similar moment to that which the world was in during the late 1930s when it walked blindfolded into a world war. Nationalism was growing. Economies were teetering. The masses were looking to vocal charismatic leaders for solutions instead of looking to their industrious selves to work their way up out of difficulties. Let’s not repeat history.
Stop waiting for our ‘leaders’ and take practical steps to address our problems
It is difficult to say this, but President Nelson Mandela in spite of his tremendous legacy of reconciliation, has left South Africans with a sense of helpless dependence on our leaders. Every day I hear complaints about the lack of leadership in the country required to deal with our issues. Every day I hear someone complain about our inability to work together towards a common future. In those narratives, the “other” is always at fault. When I listen to government officials, they blame business. When I listen to business, they blame government. Increasingly, when I listen to communities, they blame government and business. South Africa is not that simple. In 2014 government failed the country by failing to implement the National Development Plan as they had committed to do. Business failed the country by relying on small-scale corporate social investments instead of fully appreciating their role as an agent of transformation in our society. Communities, civil society and the labour movement in particular, failed our country by being either fractured, distracted, or driven by political and ideological agendas.
An influential South African who played a key role in the 1980s and 1990s made the point that, “a crisis can be a wonderful thing, because it focuses the mind … South Africa’s problem is that we are not yet in enough of a crisis”. The more I think about it, the more I agree. South Africans are still playing politics, board-games and pointing fingers. Instead, what we need to do is get over ourselves, our anger and our fears and get on with the job of building a country where we can all live together in peace and prosperity. This will take a collective effort. So while Rhodes falls and our necessary debates rage on, let’s remember that nothing worthy and lasting was ever built out of anger and fear. A worthwhile future will require hard work and courage and it will mean that while we are rightly concerned, we keep hope alive.