News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
13 Jul 2019
9:35 am

South Africans’ optimism has shrivelled on the vine

William Saunderson-Meyer

The country is literally grinding to a halt.

A bus was set alight during a protest for toilets and taps in Philippi on Wednesday. Photo: Velani Ludidi

South Africa is burning. It’s not yet a conflagration but to ignore its potential to become one, would be a terrible mistake.

Unless our government summons the political courage to deal with public violence, SA is edging towards a tipping point.

The militancy and rage can be called resistance. Or revolution. Call it insurrection. Or cloak it in the euphemism of “angry protest”.

Whatever the terminology of the propagandists and the apologists, the situation is poised. The sporadic community violence that has been bubbling nationwide for years appears to becoming more frequent, more brazen, more organised, and more directed at securing specific political outcomes.

The problem needs to be addressed, but the police seem to lack the ability to do anything, while the ANC seems to lack the courage to do anything. Into that vacuum slide the firebrands, the criminals, and the political hyenas.

I wrote the above passage of analysis well over a year ago. They were despairing words but carefully weighed. They bear repetition.

On Politicsweb, columnist Dave Bullard wrote this week that “a heavy cloud of hopelessness and helplessness hangs over South Africa … I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such gloom among my fellow countrymen.”

Also this week, on BusinessLive, Institute of Race Relations’ Gareth van Onselen sketches an apocalyptic vision of a low-grade civil war. “There is the ANC, and the people. And they are at each other’s throat … blood is being spilt.”

There can be little doubt that, so far, Cyril Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” has proved illusory. State capture under the former president’s encouragement is estimated at over a trillion rand. But that’s the least of it.

There is virtually not an international comparator that SA has not sagged against. There is not a moral or ethical standard that we have not betrayed.

The country is literally grinding to a halt.

In the 2017/2018 financial year, arson attacks cost the Passenger Rail Agency close on a billion rand with 1,496 rail carriages destroyed, with virtually no arrests. Countrywide, in the past year, around 1,300 truck-and-trailer rigs have been attacked, damaged and destroyed, with direct costs of about R1.3bn and 213 deaths.

Mirroring in miniature the implosion at a national level of almost all SA’s giant state-owned entities, local government is on its knees. Some three-quarters of municipalities need urgent intervention to avoid collapse, while a third are already bankrupt.

William Gumede, associate professor of governance at Wits, writes in BusinessLive this week that “black victimhood” is used as an excuse to avoid accountability. Songezo Zibi, former editor of Business Day, writing this week on News24, offers nought for our comfort. “Until there is a new political school of thought that seeks … to build social structures that deepen accountability, our situation will not improve. We shall continue to degenerate, risking violent social upheaval.”

A Canadian journalist friend used post-1994 to say that South Africans were the most absurdly optimistic people that she had ever met. That optimism is shrivelling, turning sour on the vine.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.

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