Whether in Kabul, London, Washington or Pretoria global leaders appear to believe that big mouth is more important than sound math. In South Africa only a small percentage of the populace pay tax, electricity bills or television licences, they are also the best educated and most productive part of the population and those most likely to leave the country for foreign shores. Yet government is allowing them to get taxed to the borders.

Eskom is demanding 45% annual price hikes and although electrification is the most widespread here of any African country, those who pay for its use are a small segment of the electricity consumer base. The rest get by on illegal connections and inept municipalities writing off losses. Those who consistently pay get zapped with lights cut off the minute they neglect to pay in full and on time.

Now the South African Broadcasting Corporation is asking for those who pay tax — again the same few — to have one percent cut off their salaries to fund an organisation riven with corruption and maladministration. Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan has warned that this small coterie of payers who fund a very big country and a growing citizenry living on handouts — more than 13 million — can expect additional tax hikes.

And so a country with a massive skills shortage can expect a deepening brain drain. Why should the cleverest remain? High taxes, like those in Sweden or Switzerland are acceptable if there is a quid pro quo of a state that delivers great health, superior care for children and the aged, good schools and safe societies; in South Africa we have none of those advantages. The school system is all but collapsed after endless fiddling with curricula and a dominant union that has seen teaching ethics destroyed. Before we had bad schools in black townships but fine Model C schools, now all are collapsing as educational standards teeter.

Failures in the health system are terrifying and the proposed national health insurance system brings the danger that what has happened with schools will happen with health. And good schools and healthcare as well as personal safety is what draws immigrants; failures encourage the best skilled to leave. As one Dinokeng Scenario presenter noted last week: “In the past Afrikaans leaders sent their children to government Afrikaans schools and they and their families would go to state hospitals, today’s leaders send their children to school in England and have private hospital care, they are removing themselves further and further from the people.”

And the people know it and are increasingly burning tyres on public highways and challenging shoot-to-kill instructed police. The Dinokeng Scenarios suggest that South Africa has 15 years in which to “adapt or die”. We will walk together, apart or behind according to these political scenarios. If we walk apart, which this increasingly divided society is already doing, it suggests that in eight years we will experience the rule of a “strong man” or dictator.

I would suggest that 15 years is hopelessly optimistic, it took 14 years from the June 1976 uprising to February 1990 and the unbanning of organisations including the African National Congress or seven years from the massive protests sparked by the tricameral parliament in 1983 and the founding of the United Democratic Front and only five years from the formation of the Congress of SA Trade Unions in 1985 for change.

All of that rapid movement in historical terms, although it felt like lifetimes living through them, was with a relatively politically immature, afraid populace confronting the best organised military and police on the continent. Today we have a politically adept, if not radical populace confronting a disorganised military and police who earlier this year battled it out on the lawns of the Union Buildings.

And yes, we arguably have the best administration now since the Mandela years. The best politician in the country at present? Undoubtedly Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane for ethics, empathy, courage and hard work. This administration appears committed to listening and acting, but is still not showing the leadership that encourages rhetoric and actions that show empathy or that unites and builds optimism.

But such political rejection of reality is not ours alone, let’s take the United States and the United Kingdom. Battling with two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the latter of which seems to be getting hopelessly out of control and endangering Pakistan and potentially India — as well as massive internal economic problems and growing joblessness — 10.6% of the US’s 250 million people and three million out of work in the United Kingdom — they’ve taken to waving a big stick at Iran.

Iran responded with alacrity allowing inspections of its nuclear plants. Now the US and its allies are demanding that Iran send uranium to be enriched in Russia before being sent to France for conversion to medical use. Russia? I’d trust Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Ahmadinejad has countered by saying they will send small consignments to Russia instead of large consignments and given the corruption and instability of Russia, it seems sensible.

France and the US are rejecting that saying Israel might attack Iran before that happens. So why don’t they stop Israel? Who is its biggest funder? The US alone has the capacity to stop Israel. Surely the US has enough on its plate without seeking another war? President Barack Obama, whose star is sadly waning as election promises go unfulfilled has an $85 billion healthcare bill to operationalise.

During his election campaign, he promised to pull troops out of Iran and Afghanistan and to close Guantanamo Bay, but the man who is this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner has fulfilled none of those campaign promises. He seems set to send more troops to Afghanistan as that war begins engulfing Pakistan and poses challenges for security in India.

US General Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan wants 40 000 more US troops — or a 40% troop increase — to boost the failing battle for that country after nine years of war. But Bagram Air Field in Parwan province, as an example, the largest US military base in Afghanistan already houses 24 000 military personnel and civilian contractors and simply has no more room.

There are plans for a new $22 million air terminal and a $9 million cargo yard. When the US military took over Bagram in December 2001, the base was 3 993 acres, it is now 5 198 acres with furious building activity a constant feature — in the US itself, with the economic downturn construction has all but collapsed as war leeches resources.

Back to South Africa: at this stage, this observer is non-plussed by the failure of the South African administration to do the math and its foolish belief that the small percentage who already pay their school fees, medical bills, utility accounts, traffic fines, security company charges and do tax eFiling on time have the capacity or the desire to quietly be milked with few returns on their investment in this country. Some take to the streets and burn tyres in service delivery protests, others quietly approach the Australian, Canadian and British embassies and buy one-way tickets out.

In the United States those banks that were given billions by the Bush administration to secure their status despite track records of profligate overspending and poor management are getting ready to give multimillion-dollar bonuses to executives and staff despite millions of Americans out on the street with no work. The bankers haven’t learnt their lesson and nor has the US government remembered the lessons of Vietnam.

US historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in The March of Folly: “The power to command frequently causes failure to think … If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, if we are self-confident enough to acknowledge it and wise enough to reverse it, we will have reached the summit.”

At present it feels as though global leaders are languishing in the swamp of lessons not learned and we as citizens forget that democracy is about the people governing, us speaking up, doing, and applying pressure for the change we want to experience.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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