Things have fallen apart. The centre has not held. While we’re not in the territory of total anarchy being “loosed” upon our country, things are pretty shaky. I was struck by the thought that when things deteriorate in small chunks incrementally it becomes easier to live with them as inconveniences.
When systems fail little by little, it is far simpler to adapt to them. Imagine this. You live in a street where everything works. Your road is smooth and unsullied by potholes or ditches. You drive the way you should, on your side of the road at all times. You’re used to that. The streets are clean, the power is on, it’s an idyllic utopia of municipal life. Your parks are safe, well maintained. You go to the well-maintained cemetery to pay your respects to your loved ones, no hesitation, no worries about your safety there. It’s neat. It’s a worthy place for the dead we love to lie in. Your municipal bill comes on time, accurate, like clockwork.
Speaking of clockwork, your city hall clock works. You say to your friends at dinner that your rates money is well spent. You get the picture.
Then one day you wake up. There is no water or lights. You’ve made no behavioural changes to accommodate this and literally have the lone bottle of water in the fridge, a candle stub from the last romantic dinner you held, and that’s all. It’s a shock to the system. You drive out your gate and there are 20 areas of serious road damage in the space of 500 metres. You’re so used to it being smooth and perfect that the first jolt as your wheel descends 15 cms into the first crater comes as a shock. Then you see all the others pitting the tar and start driving around them but, unused to this way of driving, you battle to adapt.
You don’t realise that you not only have to drive to accommodate your own avoidance of potholes, but that you have to anticipate how other drivers in the oncoming lane will drive around the potholes they are faced with. You must suddenly scan two ways for potholes. If the road you’re on has two lanes, be careful of drivers coming in your direction swerving towards you to avoid damage to their cars. Under these circumstances, as a newbie to this wild, mad driving technique, I’ll give you a week before your first sideswipe.
Now think of the way we’ve seen our roads deteriorate little by little, day by day, month by month and year by year. We’re used to it. We may not like it, but we have slowly adapted and have got to know where the worst potholes are, and we skirt around them unconsciously as they’ve been assimilated into our drive to work, our local mall or wherever we go that’s a familiar route.
The point I’m trying to make is that, having seen a slow deterioration in services we are less shocked by what we experience than if it had all happened overnight. We’re far more blasé each time the water stops coming out of our taps or each time the lights go out. We accept we haven’t had streetlights for years and probably won’t for years to come. Most of us are lucky enough to be able to work around these rather large “inconveniences” as the city labels them.
The problem is, it’s not just our cities and towns that have degraded to the point where they are Third World. We can’t call them developing, the more polite term, anymore because they’re largely not. They’re going backwards. The only development we’re seeing is in the strengthening of civic organisations which take up a firm position against those who got us in this mess or are keeping us there. We see the various media putting pressure on government to acknowledge its faults and deal with them. Many of our other spheres of government are also collapsing, have collapsed or are failing citizens dismally. The Post Office. Home Affairs. SAA. Hospitals. Roads. Law and order. The list goes on.
We don’t get an acceptable level of services. Too often we’re not treated with respect. We get billed incorrectly. We’re routinely messed around by public servants who make it clear they don’t care about the work they do. And those they report to don’t seem to care either. Hah! She didn’t mention Eskom in the list of government entities which are letting us down, I hear you mutter. That’s because I saved a special paragraph just for them. The lights come and go like a decrepit disco. We accept it. We adjust and make do with cuppa soup for supper heated by the camping gas cylinder or flip over to the inverter/solar (which cost us a packet and a half) or the generator (yikes, the cost of diesel).
The recent reports of sabotage are cause for huge concern. The levels to which we have sunk in SA mean that deliberate damage to vital infrastructure is commonplace. Like the potholes, the rot and the lack of interest in service delivery, we’re used to this. These things have lost their shock factor and because it’s all so wearying, an attitude of apathy takes over. We have corruption fatigue, pothole fatigue and outage fatigue.
People, this South Africa we’re living in now is not normal. We can’t pretend this is an acceptable state of being for our beloved country. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this should not be happening. We have to keep railing against it. We need to return to a state where we’re jolted into action to call the municipality to report things that are not right. Or e-mail or call our councillor, the MEC or MP. Join the ratepayers groups near you. Write a letter to the newspaper (email@example.com).
We have to galvanise ourselves into action so that at least if it gets to a point where everything has, God forbid it, collapsed, we can say with a clear conscience we did what we could.
Let’s keep reminding each other that apathy will be the death of our livelihoods, our cities and our province. We love living here! We need to fight for our right to do so with services that are acceptable.
But, let’s remember there’s still great times to be had. Now go and do something that makes you happy. A walk down the plane tree avenue in Bot Gardens anyone? A meander through the Royal Show? Happy renewals of friendships at the 25th Maritzburg College old boys’ reunion? Whatever it is, have a blast.
• Stephanie Saville is editor of The Witness.