Joe Kitchen
Joe Kitchen

The Great Unravelling

A few weeks before the May 8 elections, I got lost in central Joburg.

I was on a highway I had driven dozens of times before, when, all of a sudden, I realised that it had been closed down. The entire highway seemed to be barricaded by concrete blocks.

My rented car and I was forced to divert into a dicey little side-street marked DETOUR.

I had no idea where to go from there. I could not see any more DETOUR signs.

The next moment I landed in hell.

Central Joburg had certainly never been a very upbeat place. For as long as I could remember, there had been a subtle aura of sadness and neglect.

But it had been functional. Last time I was there, the robots still worked. Some of the pavements were punctuated with interesting little stalls. I had never really felt unsafe there, at least not in the day-time.

This time, it was mid-afternoon, and I felt as if I had landed in the middle of war-torn Beirut. I simply could not believe the squalor all around me.

Almost no robots worked. The sidewalks as well as the streets were overcrowded with thousands of desperate-looking people. Cars were being taken apart and stripped as I watched. Many of the buildings seemed uninhabitable and in a state of collapse, yet people seemed to be living inside those empty ruins.

I was reminded of a movie I had seen a long time ago, ‘Escape From New York’. Most of you will probably remember that one. It depicted a time in the future of the United States where the crime rate in New York had risen to unmanageable levels. The response of the government was to simply shut the city down. They put a virtual lid on it. No-one was allowed to enter or exit. Inside this God-forsaken urban jungle, all rules flew out the window, civilisation ceased to exist, and the decaying streets descended into furtive and lawless anarchy.

A wonderful plot for a film.

I had never expected to see such a scene in real life.

“Is this what had become of South Africa?” I asked myself. “Is this a metaphor of everything that is falling apart: our neighbourhoods, our infrastructures, our state-owned enterprises, our entire economy? Will the whole of South Africa look like this in a few years’ time?”

That evening, I was scheduled to perform my music in a quaint little upmarket theatre. The organisers had let me know that the show was already fully booked.

A few hours later, I had reached my guesthouse. Though the guest-house was in a fairly posh neighbourhood, I could not help to think how close to the mess in downtown Joburg I still was. One could almost walk from the one area to the other. Go one block too far, and you’d find yourself in another universe.

I unpacked, showered, put on my best shirt, and within an hour I was on stage, doing the pres-show sound check.

Abruptly, all the lights went out.

Everyone hastily checked their phones, No load-shedding had been scheduled at all. It was an inexplicable outage.

I was forced to perform my music unplugged, by the light of a few candles, without a working sound system, in an almost pitch-dark auditorium.

Nevertheless, the evening was a roaring success. Naturally, I sang a bunch of protest songs. There was a mood of angry defiance in the crowd.

When I returned to my guest-house in the upmarket neighbourhood, with the street lights still off, I detected movements in the darkened streets. People were huddling around here and there, some were running, there was a lot of furtive gesturing and dodgy action. Housebreakings? Petty crime? Anything could happen under cover of darkness.

I went to bed in a despondent mood. “What has become of my country?” I asked myself. “When was the veneer of law and order stripped away? Is this the start of The Great Unravelling, the first signs that we were heading, collectively, towards the reality of a failed state?”

I lay awake that night, uncomfortably tossing and turning in my upmarket bed, without any TV, with no electric blanket, with darkness outside the drawn blinds.

Since that evening, we have had a general election. Ramaphosa has finally been officially sworn in as President. There are hopeful signs. Everyone is talking about an era of regeneration, in spite of the alarming faction fighting in our government.

Yet the GDP is worsening. Unemployment is still on the rise. Farm murders have come to the hitherto peaceful vineyards of the Cape province. And if you think farm murders are bad, consider that more than two thousand people had been killed in gang-related killings in the Western Cape so far this year. Hundreds of towns in the platteland are still full of potholes, with drainage problems, rubbish and grime everywhere. Shops are being boarded up.

Of course there are positives. Among other things, we still have a vibrant cultural scene, and the arts festivals are still going strong. During the last KKNK Festival a few months ago, however, I had made the mistake of going sight-seeing in the suburbs of Oudtshoorn. The moment I left the main road, I was surrounded by broken houses, deserted businesses and signs of dilapidation.

This is South Africa right now. This is the country with the national anthem that has been voted the best in the world. The is the country with the most modern constitution, with loads of natural resources, a free press, and lots of wonderful free spirits and innovators. This is the place that gave birth to international stars such as Trevor Noah and Charlize Theron.

Why are we turning into a dump?

How long will it take to fix things?

Will we ever manage to fix things?

The Joburg CBD, though it seems irreparably damaged, can probably be made livable again. They managed to accomplish wonderful things in Maboneng. During the last decade or so, the Cape Town CBD has been transformed from a dismal empty wasteland into a thriving hub of activity, without relinquishing its inclusivity (and it would probably have been even more inclusive if Auntie Pat had her way).

I remember driving to the airport the morning after the night of that candle-lit concert. As I approached Jan Smuts, I was tempted to take a turnoff into Alexandra. I had heard that the streets there were overrun by rats. I wanted to see for myself.

But I could not bear seeing more chaos, more poverty, more disorder, more mayhem. If the mayor of the city was too scared to even set foot there, who was I to even consider it?

This is what we have become. This is what we are becoming. We are heading for a fiscal cliff. There are beggars at every single stop-light. Homeless people in their dozens are sleeping under bridges in the Cape winter. Ruination is everywhere.

What will it take to push us permanently over the edge? One more downgrade? One more fuel price hike? One more day of violence in Parliament?

Is this indeed The Great Unravelling, or will we manage to turn things around and stop the rot?