Are we on a slippery slope to a failed state, asks Max du Preez

South Africa is in crisis and its people are more depressed than at any time during the past two decades. Instead of doing a sober audit of positives and negatives, of our nation’s strengths and weaknesses, most of us talk ourselves deeper into depression.

We don’t delve much deeper than screaming headlines and television visuals of angry mobs, chaos in Parliament, reckless rhetoric, abuse of power, electricity blackouts and general decline.

First off, we think our decline is unique – but when the developed countries classify you as an emerging market, you have problems. Brazil, Turkey, Australia, Russia, Greece and Italy also have problems.

We look at our deeply flawed president and his inner circle’s abuse of power and privilege, and we say, ‘That’s what South Africa has become; we’re on the slippery slope to a failed state.’ We have become paralysed like a hare in the headlights, waiting for the impact.

I think we’ve stopped believing in ourselves and our own potential as a nation, our resilience. We think Jacob Zuma defines who we are as a people. We forget that a short 15 years ago we thought Nelson Mandela defined who we were. Polar opposites.

Zuma is no Robert Mugabe. He won’t be with us until he’s 91. Third-term talk is about ANC leadership, not the president. At the very latest he will be replaced by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019 – yes, they will inherit a culture of patronage, but the circle will be broken.

Most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between what is deplorable and what is dangerous, between what could go wrong and what is highly unlikely to go wrong.

For example, would the ANC give up power if they lost an election? When I posed this question on social media and elsewhere, most white people said, ‘No way – they’ll do a Zimbabwe.’ Most black people took offence that the question was even asked.

Refusing to accept defeat after an election would mean tearing up the Constitution and disbanding Parliament and the judiciary. That would be catastrophic for the economy and would lead to a great increase in poverty and hunger, setting the scene for civil war.

Do you really see the ANC’s leaders doing that? Do you see ordinary South Africans tolerating such behaviour? No.

There are few problems facing South Africa that good leadership and an active citizenry can’t fix.

I’m not trying to put lipstick on a pig. We are indeed facing severe challenges that will test our very stability if we don’t deal with them properly and swiftly.

The unfortunate part is that at the very moment when our internal pressures are at boiling point, our economy is coming under severe external pressure because of the slowdown of the Chinese economy and decreasing commodity prices. Part of the damage is, of course, self-inflicted – Malusi Gigaba’s bizarre visa regulations are an example.

Julius Malema recently declared that white people’s honeymoon was over. He is wrong. The whole South Africa’s honeymoon is over. The expectations of 20 years ago have not been met – not by a long shot. Some blame the history of apartheid and colonialism and whites’ persistent resistance to transformation; others blame the successive ANC governments for wasting our chances of becoming a successful, more equal state.

If we stick to Malema’s metaphor, now that our honeymoon is over we have to make the transition to a happy long-term marriage. Divorce is not an option.

You have probably heard the much-abused quote from Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci: the old is dying, but the new cannot yet be born. In the interregnum a variety of morbid symptoms appear. This is very applicable to our society today.

There is ample evidence that the old is dying:

  • There is a dangerous rise of black anger, not only in the squatter camps and townships, but also among the working class, middle class and even at our universities, with #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and #FeesMustFall. Listen, but do not tolerate fascist tendencies and intolerance; recognise those who peddle anger for the sake of anger.
  • The trade union movement that had been one solid block since the founding of COSATU in 1985 has broken into three warring pieces with the breakaway of AMCU and of the NUMSA bloc.
  • We’ve seen the rise of cheap populism and of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with its reckless rhetoric and inclination towards violent solutions.
  • The EFF and NUMSA have made new demands for large-scale nationalisation of mines, banks, industries and agricultural land.
  • The rise of the Democratic Alliance is another sign. Despite relentless propaganda from the ANC and elsewhere that it is a white party of apartheid, the DA received 22,3% of the votes in the 2014 general election, with almost 800 000 black votes. It is expected to do even better in next year’s local elections. We hear on a daily basis – and we read in the Cape Times every morning – what ugly racists white people still are. And yet they were the people who elected a young black man from Soweto to be their political leader.
  • But the most glaring sign that we’ve reached the end of an era is that the leader of the majority party and president of the country is a 73-year-old ethnic traditionalist presiding over a society that has been modernising fast and is almost 70% urbanised. Jacob Zuma is increasingly following the path of a Big Man in Africa while losing support among urban and middle-class black people who see him as embarrassing.

One overwhelming positive can be taken from the political developments of the past year or so: the hegemony of the ANC has been broken. One party will no longer dominate everything in our country. The ANC will get a bloody nose at next year’s local elections – politics of coalition will begin in earnest.

We’re on the cusp of a new, second transition. We should see this as an exciting challenge. So let’s do the audit of positives and negatives I talked about earlier.

The first massive negative is the plight of the black youth, the products of 20 years of utterly disastrous education. These so-called Born Frees, youngsters born after 1990, form more than half of the nation – there are 27 million of them.

  • 20% of them grew up without parents.
  • Unemployment among these youngsters is 67% for males and 75% for females.
  • Only 16% of 20–24-year-olds go to university and only half of them will leave with a degree or diploma.
  • A third of South Africa’s prison population is between 14 and 25 years old.

Let me run through the other negative indicators quickly:

  • South Africa has, per capita, the most expensive state bureaucracy in the world, and some would add one of the most incompetent ones – 14 cents out of every rand the state spends go to paying civil servants.
  • State-owned enterprises have performed disastrously and cost the country billions. I don’t need to remind you of the problems of Eskom, PRASA, PetroSA, the Post Office or the SABC.
  • The Zuma inner circle has systematically captured public institutions including SARS, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the SABC.
  • Corruption, tender fraud, nepotism and cadre deployment continue unabated and we’re beginning to feel the cumulative effect of these practices over the past few years.
  • We have witnessed a creeping authoritarianism the past year or so with the rise of Zuma-aligned securocrats. Where PW Botha and his doctrine of Total Onslaught had the State Security Council and State Security Management System, the ANC has the ‘security cluster’.
  • We have utter policy confusion coming from a Cabinet consisting of communists, capitalists and ethnic nationalists. The National Development Plan is not even talked about any more.
  • Our president is corrupt, morally and otherwise, but is virtually untouchable because he has cleverly surrounded himself with loyalists, people who owe him or people he has dirt on. This is true of the armed forces and intelligence services, the Cabinet, the provincial legislatures and the ANC’s top decision-making bodies.

Not a pretty picture.

And yet we remain the most open society outside the big Western democracies. Our media are still free and diverse. Everybody from the extreme left to the right has a presence in the system, in Parliament. Open societies never fail! You’ve got to close them down first, and that’s not possible in SA.

South Africa is still structurally and institutionally strong:

  • There’s no ethnic or regional tension.
  • There’s no terrorism or religious fundamentalism.
  • We have good infrastructure.
  • The Constitution is intact.
  • The judiciary is still independent and functioning – we’re a constitutional, not a majoritarian democracy.
  • The military is not looking over the shoulders of civilian government.

Let me give you examples of the good, the positive lurking behind the bad news.

  • ‘Zuma is getting away with Nkandla.’ – Actually, he didn’t. It has seriously damaged him and his party because the citizens did not stop protesting.
  • The ANC tried to rein in the media with the Secrecy Bill – but civil society forced them to rewrite it three times!
  • ANC attacks on judiciary – but the Chief Justice called them out and forced a meeting between the Cabinet and the judges. The people won again.

The key in all these developments was activism by civil society, the business sector and opposition parties. That’s how we should make sure that the R1 trillion nuclear power deal with Russia never goes through. Instead, we must grab the fantastic opportunity to stage a green energy revolution. That nuclear deal will inflict damage on our society through crippling debt and unaffordable electricity prices for generations.

We heard a lot of grumbling from middle-class black intellectuals and professionals about white supremacy, inequality and so-called decolonisation recently. And yet the establishment of a significant black middle and upper middle class over the past two decades has been spectacular and unprecedented.

  • The number of black people earning more than R400 000 per year grew by 1 000% from 120 000 in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2014. Nine out of ten of them are in the private sector.
  • The black middle class grew 300% from 1.8 million to 6 million during the last decade.
  • In the five years between 1996 and 2011, black disposable income grew 370% from R161 million to R756 million – significantly higher than total white disposable income.
  • Today, more black homeowners are paying off bonds on their properties than whites. Twenty-one years ago black people could not own property.
  • Nine out of ten black households have at least one cellphone.
  • Private schools are 72% black.
  • Since 1996, black people living on less than $2 a day has fallen from 16% of the population to 2,5%.

We have extraordinary energy, vitality and goodwill in SA.

  • We have civil society organisations like Equal Education, Freedom Under Law, Right2Know and Abahlali baseMjondolo.
  • We have a vibrant and innovative business sector and leadership, such as in the farmers’ community (agriculture will lead land reform).
  • In the charity and welfare sector we have churches, NGOs, the Rotarians, Lions clubs, women’s organisations, Gift of the Givers and many more.

Our energy problems are almost over – it’s been nearly three months since the last load-shedding.

How do we drastically reduce inequality? Through wealth taxes, faster land reform and redistribution, says economist Thomas Piketty. Listen to him – but I would argue that his ideas go hand-in-hand with the imperatives that we have more efficient government, better education, more funding for students, less corruption, more cohesive policies, and fewer grand schemes.

Imagine a post-Zuma South Africa, a changed political environment of perhaps coalitions ruling in provinces and local councils, clear economic policies and a more efficient and accountable civil service.

I can realistically imagine an SA in the not-too-distant future with a 6% growth rate, an exchange rate of R10 to the US dollar, declining unemployment, a transformed education system and a new optimism replacing anger, intolerance and depression.

I can imagine a time soon when we South Africans can hold our heads high again in the world as we did immediately after 1994.

That’s the SA we should work hard for. I want to be part of that SA and the battle to get there.