South Africans are like the old Karoo farmer standing on his stoep watching the abundant rain quenching the earth’s thirst after a long drought. He does this every day for a week as the water comes down, just stands there, pulling on his pipe. On the eighth day the rain suddenly stops and the sun breaks through. The farmer looks up at the heavens with a scowl: ‘Daar begin die volgende donnerse droogte al weer!’ (There the next damn drought starts again.)
Sure, there is a lot more angst now, two decades after the golden era of Nelson Mandela. We have squandered a lot of our opportunities as a nation and we know that crunch-time is fast approaching. The political temperature is rising as the black majority’s resentment at the continued inequality in society is building up. Many of us are frustrated that the ANC couldn’t make the shift from liberation movement to governing party in an open democracy; that it has produced leaders with little vision and leadership; that it has allowed corruption and nepotism to become institutionalised. There is certainly reason to be angry that corporate South Africa hasn’t joined the project of transforming our society with more enthusiasm.
But most of us, even the poor, are better off now than before 1994, materially and in terms of personal freedoms and quality of life.
We have what has become the most valuable commodity in the world today: stability. Stability is more than just the absence of violence and mayhem. Stability means predictability: the knowledge that a state will maintain the rule of law; that the Constitution and the laws of the land will be applied; that the legal system is fair, credible and operational.
Our stability is rooted in our splendid Constitution and the fact that no one has tried to mess with it so far; in our strong institutions; our vibrant civil society; our free and independent media; our basically sound economy; our innovative business community; and our growing black middle class. We may curse and resent one another when we operate in racial or ethnic groups, but most South Africans are actually getting along just fine in our neighbourhoods, boardrooms, offices and churches, and on our factory floors and streets.
We do not have a tradition of military interference in politics such as Egypt, Zimbabwe and other countries have. Thanks to the credibility and efficiency of our Independent Electoral Commission, the legality and credibility of our elections are never in doubt.
We have the most sophisticated road and rail infrastructure in the develop- ing world; the best airports and airlines that run on time; the most advanced banking system; excellent fixed-line and cellular phone connections; and the most print and electronic media outlets.
What about the almost daily service-delivery protests and the often violent strikes by trade unions, I hear you ask. Yes, these are symptoms of serious fault lines in our society and we do seem to be more boisterous in our protests than most other societies. At the same time, these actions also remind us that we do not live in a police state, but in a democracy where dissension and protest are allowed. They do not fundamentally undermine our stability, in the same way recent violent protests in Brazil and Turkey didn’t make those countries unstable states.
When confronted by those who predict an imminent collapse and a Zimbabwe-type situation, I always advise an hour on Google. Go and read what is happening with crime, corruption, nepotism, media and personal freedom, and indeed democracy in the powerful state of Russia, a democracy three years older than ours. Look at the crumbling economies and financial instability of old democracies such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. Read about the coup in Egypt and how recent events have fractured that society, supposed to be the most stable in that region. Investigate the perpetual instability in Pakistan, and the bloody civil war in Syria. Even take note of the divisions, lack of social cohesion and occasional government paralysis in the mighty America. And then appreciate the sunny southern tip of Africa a little more.
Many of us fear the same things and ask the same questions we did when the negotiations between the ANC and the National Party government started in 1990, twenty-three years ago. We should learn to understand what could potentially go wrong in our society and what is highly unlikely to go wrong. We tend to overreact so much to negative indicators that we don’t even notice the positive ones.
When our president uses public money to fund his private villa at Nkandla or allows his Gupta friends to treat South Africa as their own backyard, we should howl and protest, but to start shouting that we are a banana republic is just silly.
If there were one thing I would like us South Africans to learn from other societies it would be that the president and the government of the day do not define who and what we are as a people and a country.
My lefty friends in New York moaned and bitched about George W. Bush when he was president and called him names that I can’t repeat here. But they didn’t say America was rotten and start making plans to emigrate. America is still America, but Barack Obama has brought a whole new vision, style and political culture.
We might have a weak and ineffectual government and a rather embarrassing president right now, but our country and our people are as vibrant and strong as we were when we negotiated that unlikely settlement in 1994, and as magnificent as we saw ourselves to be when we won the Rugby World Cup twice and hosted the most spectacular Soccer World Cup in 2010.
Let me be frank: there is a lot more to South Africa and South Africans than Jacob Zuma and his present crop of ANC leaders. In fact, there is a lot more to the ANC than Zuma and Co.
I attended a breakfast briefing by futurologist and scenario mapper Clem Sunter early in 2013. He gave a lively, engaging and entertaining presentation, and I was most impressed. It all sounded so logical.
But on my way home I felt the irritation grow inside me. Sunter had just told me that there was a 25 per cent probability of South Africa becoming a failed state. In fact, he said the failed-state scenario was no longer a wild-card possibility lurking in the shadows: it was now a genuine threat.
Why, I thought, would he even say the words ‘failed state’ and ‘South Africa’ in one sentence? Why was he devoting his time and energy to measuring whether we are about to become like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Afghanistan? Okay, 25 per cent is a low mark, but as he himself said, would you board a plane if you were told there was a 25 per cent chance that you would die?
I think it is completely inappropriate and sends an alarmist message. It’s doing the same as the predictions that we are facing an imminent Arab Spring, a phenomenon that wreaked havoc in Libya and Egypt and resulted in the Syrian civil war.
If you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find reasons to say states like Brazil, Greece, Argentina, Turkey, Poland, Italy and Spain should also be on a list of countries with some probability of becoming failed states.