The Poverty of Power – South Africa, 2008

Hitherto South Africa has been awash with the goodwill of well-meaning onlookers overseas who believe that they helped bring the struggle to an end, that their protests, their praying, their posters brought down apartheid. (The equivalent these days would be like supposing that the same agit-prop could eliminate Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.) Certainly, those few in South Africa whom news of overseas support reached, were encouraged, as were the guerilla fighters at war with the South African army beyond the borders. But the supportive protesters have moved on to the next good cause.

Benevolent disregard is easier than facing what the ANC government has done with the power so many fought and died to gain. Until recently, “Everybody loved us,” says one of the interviewees in London Grip’s Passing Shots:  Johannesburg. But the honeymoon is over and the song being sung is of disappointed love.  Too many members of the South African government and their hangers-on have turned out to be as incompetent and corrupt as any political gang anywhere.  The anti-romanticists are rubbing it in, taunting grizzled utopianists:  “What did you expect? The human race was ever thus.  Give us Eden, and we’ll make a hell of it.”

Where are we? How did we get here?

The only way to make sense of all this is to ascertain not South Africa’s position, but ones own, and it transpires there are only two valid options. Either one is on the inside and looking out, or else on the outside looking in, and these respective positions induce diametrically opposed reactions to recent events.

Here is how one finds out whether one is on the inside or the outside.    If you sigh, ”Africa always wins. It’s over,” then deep down you are an outsider, you don’t belong: you are no longer an African, and should pack for Perth.  And it’s got nothing to do with colour or money or where you live – or whether or not you can afford the air-ticket out.

Perhaps you’re one of those who raises a figurative fist and cries, albeit with weary resignation, “A luta continua!”  Contrary to common belief, this slogan (coined upon Mozambique’s independence by Samora Machel, its first president),  is not, at least in my view, only a call to arms. It is simply shorthand for:  “Get real!” That is to say, nothing is perfect, there’s always something that needs fixing, so let’s fix it.  If this is what you say when you look at the mess South Africa is in, it indicates that you see yourself as inside, and part of the whole. You are African.  It’s got nothing to do with colour or money or where you live – or whether you can afford your own electricity generator, or a loaf of bread.

Oh yes, and there’s a third, but untenable position that we must instantly disqualify.  It belongs to the new, post-apartheid species of South African who can’t settle in one position or even one country, and who flip between the two. There is always salt in their wounds, and they weep.  They are the ones in deepest despair and there’s no help for them.


The Human Development Index is a worldwide directory giving relative ratings of countries’ levels of development.  In these ratings, between 1990 and 2003, South Africa dropped 35 places.


South Africa became a democracy in 1994.  Before that, strange as it may seem,apartheid determined individual rights on the basis of “racial classification”.  Classification was determined according to Kafkaesque rules involving shade of skin colour, accident of birth into a particular family, first language, and place of birth.  It was of course possible to appeal to the courts to be “reclassified”:  very occasionally people did, and less occasionally, were.  But not, for instance, I have heard, the South African Jewish activist and holocaust survivor Franz Auerbach, who repeatedly applied to be reclassified as black, and was always refused.

The ruling Nationalist Party’s justification for racial classification was fantastical and self-serving; the consequences were finitely real. Aside from their untold suffering, people who lived on the black and white divide succumbed to a kind of mass neurosis typified by fear, panic, paranoia, sadism, and denial. Those whom “separate development” kept relatively intact from the worst crimes of the system, still found themselves subject to an internalised psychological tyranny that left people of all persuasions uncertain about their self-worth.

The ubiquitous injunction seemed to be that a western or European way of life was not only intrinsically superior to a traditional African one, but brought a desired upward and easy spiral of rewards:  the lesson of capitalist consumerism.  This ideal held firm even though, contrary to simplistic descriptions in news reports abroad, the income of most whites in the country, by western standards, was – and remains – modest or simply low, just as it is in most parts of the world. News reporters knew that contrasting the horrors of the black existence with the splendours of the richest whites’ lives was not a lie, and made for more sensational news stories.

Apartheid denied the vote to “non-whites”, but whether what was left to the “whites” may exactly have been called the vote, is a moot point. The regime denied all South Africans freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to attend mixed meetings, freedom of educational facilities, freedom of habitation or co-habitation, freedom to work, marry, or have sex with whom and as they wished.  All women had fewer rights than the men – in their racial category. Homosexuality was illegal and in the 1980s, AIDS became its worldly punishment.  Important pieces of art, literature, music, and film were censored or banned.  And there happened to be no TV until 1976.

Overseas, the ANC’s insistence on a cultural embargo before 1994, which prevented contemporary international thinkers and thinking from reaching the people of southern Africa, was probably the single most idiotic, narcissistic, and frankly bizarre decision that the government-in-waiting ever made.  Instead of working underground to flood the country, to invade the country, with “illicit” material and the cultural sustenance of which the apartheid government starved the people to keep them ignorant and isolated, the ANC did the job on the racist government’s behalf. The ANC entirely cut off the people from the educated world, effectively achieving what the white government in its wildest dreams couldn’t have hoped to do with such energy and efficiency. This had the effect of allowing the supporters of the cultural embargo abroad feel worthy about doing nothing.

Some of the underground political movements that evolved during the apartheid years courted western assumptions of what constituted a democracy; others eschewed or adapted these, theorising an alternative, Africanised version.  The latter in some cases incorporated a traditional, land-based culture that still survived as a sustaining foundation below the overlay of white oppression.  (In 1990 about half the population of the country was rural, surviving on subsistence agriculture.  Today it is about 40%, the difference presumably explaining the accretion of squatter camps around the cities.)

The ANC’s internal political divide was, apparently, often based on tribal affiliation but for PR purposes the cracks were covered up, and its image abroad was cool, well-connected, rather sophisticated.  In contrast, its very close ally, the South African Communist Party, its leaders made up of a mix of intellectuals, idealists and old-guard realists, projected a decidedly low-key public image.  In part the SACP was trying to make cohere trade-unionist socialism and rural African values.  They were not land-grabbing Stalinists, as the whites feared.  Rather, and despite the SACP’s involvement with Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC), it seemed to have about it the canny gradualism of the Fabians and a whiff of sandaled socialism scoured of sexual licence.  (Homosexuality was looked on with horror and utterly forbidden in the ranks.)  All of this, ironically, a hair’s breadth away from being deeply attractive to adherents of the teachings of the Old and New Testaments.  Jungians must have had a field day exploring the shadow sides of the Afrikaner Nationalists and the revolutionary movements.

Meanwhile the ANC elite, jockeying for position in the wings, respected these values but was too busy pulling strings to bother with them.  Quite probably it was the SACP’s homespun ethics (by another name, of course, and bar the mention of land reform) rather than the ANC’s, that Nelson Mandela drew on when he so impressed the west after State President F.W. de Klerk released him from prison on 11 February 1990.

Archbishop Tutu, the sole remaining spokesperson of any moral stature, epitomises these old-fashioned principles, which, he says himself, have been abandoned since the ANC politicians tasted power.


I remember how, as children, we were terrified of the police, and even into adulthood, it seemed wise to give a wide berth to any Afrikaner in uniform: one had to allow for the possibility of their being slightly insane.

As English-speakers we didn’t belong, didn’t feel we really had the same rights as members of the ruling white Afrikaner tribe.  So much fear and intimidation – yet we too were whites.  So we knew it had to be that much worse for blacks. Perhaps in due course psychological research will emerge with corresponding accounts of how apartheid affected the adult minds of white Afrikaners, the prime benefactors of their leaders’ paranoid psychoses, just as now research about Germans under the Nazis is emerging.

How can it not be an improvement that the new Constitution has swept away all thatapartheid horror? No longer do members of one group of people have to be kept destitute and ignorant; or live every day threatened with physical violence at the whim of any white lunatic who knows the law will defend his commitment of an assault.

South Africa’s new Constitution has inscribed freedoms which would be extraordinary in any country, let alone one that until 1994 was run as a feudal terror state, an oligarchic casteocracy.


The economy:

Financially the country is doing well, despite recent and increasing financial disasters. South Africa is still the world’s largest exporter of gold and platinum; ranks fifth in the world in diamond production, sixth in the world in wine production; has 60% of the world’s coal reserves. It contributes almost 40% of Africa’s GDP.  Of the top 100 African companies, 75 are South African.  Inflation is within the IMF target range of 6-7%, unlike for instance Zimbabwe where it is bitterly joked that you need a wheelbarrow full of money to buy a loaf of bread – if you can afford the wheelbarrow.

Yet there is a puzzle. The country is not short of cash, yet it has one of the most skewed distributions of income in the world. Why has this not changed?

Investors have flocked to drop their cash into the newly opened markets. Lots of people, foreign and local, have made lots of money out of the new South Africa but not much of it has trickled down to those for whom, indeed by whom, the fight was fought. Foreign aid for NGOs pours in to uplift the underdog. Yet the Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003, established by the government to fund promising but under-capitalised businesses, had barely begun operating before it became a prompt for jokes about honey-pots, freebies, and hand-outs for club buddies. Meanwhile the newspapers are full of stories about how millions of rand regularly disappear from philanthropic projects, stories not always given top billing on a page. There’s the  recent one about the millions stolen from the British Red Cross programme for children.  And there are a thousand others. It’s shocking.  It’s become normal.


Officially there is 30% unemployment – and unofficially at least 40%.  Of those employed, about 30% are employed in agriculture – yet agriculture represents only 3% of the GDP.  I am no economist, but surely this discrepancy implies extremely low pay for agricultural workers? It is on record that 78% of the chronically poor are in the rural areas. This tells us clearly:  the rural poor are being neglected.  The fat cats are in the urban areas.  They don’t see, they don’t have to see, “the rural poor”.  We remember apartheid’s policy of “separate development” when half the population was left to its own devices, confined by law to rural areas, often living below subsistence, always serving as a labour reservoir for the mines and industry.  Plus ça change?


Eskom, the government-owned national electrical and nuclear power authority, is breaking down. It was once the employer of thousands and a catalyst in South Africa’s becoming the most efficient and prosperous country in Africa.  For ten years the government has ignored warnings that maintenance and improvements could no longer be delayed – and yet they were.  At the time of writing this, Eskom is advertising 85 jobs ranging from spray painter to nuclear engineer.  And that’s just the advertisements on the internet.

As a result of Eskom’s failure to provide a full service let alone an improved service to the growing economy, the gold and diamond mines, the mainstay of the economy, have been forced to cut production by 20% at an estimated cost of three billion rand per day.


News is emerging of a breakdown of the water supply system from the Vaal Dam, one of the main suppliers of water in the country. There are reports of underground pipes showing cracks, and photographs of raw sewerage flooding into the Vaal waters. It is said that of an original ninety – white – qualified hydro-electrical engineers formerly employed in the Vaal region, only one remains and none has been replaced. People anticipate that before long, at best it won’t be safe to drink tap water, and at worst cholera will become a reality as it has in Zimbabwe.

Roads and railways:

The South African railways, along with Eskom once the employer of thousands and the pride of the despised old regime, continues now largely as a freight rather than passenger service.  However the use of roads for transporting goods in heavy vehicles has increased exponentially, along with the huge multiplication of private car owners – large numbers, it is said, with false driving licences easily purchased from fraudsters. Road maintenance has correspondingly decreased. On the lively radio programmes, many of which consist entirely of phone-in discussions with a presenter, much airtime is devoted to complaints and warnings to drivers about dangerous potholes on busy thoroughfares. In Johannesburg alone there are about 100,000 road accidents each year.

Crime and corruption:

Tales of crime and corruption are legion. Every year 18,000 people die violent deaths – that is to say, there are 49.3 murders every day.

The success of the Scorpions, the equivalent of the FBI and the Serious Fraud Office in the U.K., has been answered with government threats to close it down. It has been too effective at uncovering racketeering at the highest levels.  The top police commissioner was recently charged with being in the pocket of infamous criminals, possibly murderers.


The public hospital system has disintegrated under the alcoholic gaze of Mrs Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Minister of Health since June 1999. The hospitals have been looted of furniture and fittings, of bed linen and towels, of canteen and kitchenware.  Patients have to bring their own, and that includes food.  For those who can pay, such as the members of government, private hospitals are springing up aplenty. Their intake is by far the highest in the world for a particular group of injuries, namely gunshots to the head, neck and shoulder – the targets of car hijackers. These figures are as nothing compared to the biggest killer in the country, AIDS, for which the government has the blood of millions on its hands.


In 1982 the first diagnosis of AIDS was made in South Africa. No action was taken. By 1991 statistics revealed there was no difference in the prevalence of AIDS between the hetero- and homosexual populations.   Today it is estimated that one person in five is HIV-positive, that is, six million people.  In fact no-one really knows what the population of South Africa is because of the lax border controls and an influx of illegal immigrants from countries to the north. But it is on record that every day about a thousand people die of AIDS. Human suffering aside, bear in mind what these disease and mortality figures do to a country’s work force, to everyday life. For instance, 21% of qualified teachers are HIV-positive. New schools have been built across the country, but there are insufficient numbers of staff to teach in them.  Often the teachers are not up to the job, and worse, attendance at classes is often random or minimal – on the part of the salaried teachers, not the pupils. At least some of this behaviour must have to do with ill-health.

Antiretroviral drug treatment, which allows for continuing a fairly normal way of life, is rarely available because of a refusal on the part of the highest echelons of government, including Manto Msimang and Thabo Mbeki, to organise for a crisis, even to admit to a crisis, let alone a cure. Go down any town’s main street and you’ll find a row of funeral shops.  Increasingly cemeteries are too full to accommodate more graves.  Despite all, and in contravention of the Constitution, there is open prejudice against people who reveal that they are HIV-positive.


If there is one single factor that fourteen years down the line accounts for the current failures of a liberated South Africa, it is the inevitable aftermath of apartheid’s educational policies and the failure of the new government to instate an urgent policy to give a dozen years to training up a new generation.  The fundamental problems now are not financial. Rather, they arise from a great big hole created by a deficit in skills, especially general management skills and self-management skills, a deficit on a colossal, crippling scale, at all levels and in every quarter.

A western-style education hadn’t been available to black South Africans before the advent of apartheid. It was not as if the white Nationalist government took something away from black South Africans when it won the election in 1948:  a decent education was never there in the first place, not before 1948, not during the years of oppression, and for children who can’t go to formerly white middle-class schools in the big cities, not since 1994. Less than half the children who started school in 1999 reached matriculation. In 2007, 564,775 pupils sat the matriculation exams. About 200,000 failed. This is a comment on the educational system, not the pupils. Results such as these effect an economy in a downward spiral: lack of skills reduces demand; lack of demand reduces skills. Little is being done to educate the next generation of professionals needed by a post-industrial economy, not just to run it, but to spend in it, to keep the commercial wheel spinning.

Guerrilla warfare and apartheid’s inevitable structural collapse aside, the single phenomenon that brought closer the demise of the regime was the 1976 protests of the school-children.  This was a fireball set in motion by pupils, a massive, national-scale objection to apartheid but one pointing at the pivotal problem, namely the tosh being dumped on black students in the name of education. Out of the mouths of babes.  Yet when the post-apartheid government came to power, it ignored what the children had always known, what they risked their lives to cry out about. How could the meaning behind such an important historical moment have been disregarded by the ANC when 1994 came round?  It was.

So of course the country is heading towards a breakdown in almost every ministerial department.  With hindsight one sees it was inevitable from the moment the ANC claimed the throne and failed to prioritize the educational needs of its children throughout the country. The two areas on which they should have focussed – education and the people on the land – were exactly those they ignored.  The ANC chose the quick fix – which also happened to be the glamorous option – and gambled on courting foreign investors, especially the romanticised and romanticising west. They chose big industry, big purchases, big contracts.  For little essentials, such as – one that springs to mind – the few billion rand paid to Germany for three  new submarines “to protect our waters”. “From whom, exactly?” the tax payers asked (to no avail).  So, much bowing to the big time when what the country obviously needed was a period to lie low, to rest and recover from a lifetime of trauma, to survey the situation, to make some long-term plans: time to build up its human resources and make the most of the skills of the whites who hadn’t yet run away.  It was a glorious opportunity, beyond imagining.

Come 1994, it was assumed that with the crumbs of education they not long before had been thrown by the Nationalist Party, new employees would magically intuit how to conduct the complexities of an economy thrown open to the ravenous, over-excited wolves of the west;  it was assumed that South Africans would instantly acquire the necessary know-how by simply sitting in a chair recently warmed by a booted-out white backside.   But the evidence is that they lacked the cultural skills to do the job.  And by “cultural” I don’t mean opera. I mean self-management, the work ethic, team participation, the capacity to give and take direction, the patience to make order out of chaos or even the interest in doing so: all the actual stuff that is taught at good schools – the content of textbooks being always of secondary importance.  Of primary importance is the stuff that takes some twelve years of education to acquire and it has nothing to do with rote memorizing or high marks or having “a good c.v.”


Why did the new government do it?  Or not do it?

The obvious answer is – to be voted back in.  Perhaps it seemed like a quick fix, a way of hanging on to power, having access to massive government contracts, and for the extremely unscrupulous, a way of getting those freebies, kickbacks and handouts soon so widely uncovered.  Not that the voters seem to care much about the moral integrity of the leaders they elect.

What happened to the ANC’s pledge to serve the people?  Use the phrase these days and you’ll be greeted with a roar of laughter.  “Dinosaur language!”


The country’s material problems have two sources.  Neither springs from financial poverty.  The South African coffers, despite breathtaking theft and corruption, are still well enough stocked with the taxes levied upon the whites who remained and the massively expanding new black entrepreneurial classes. SARS, the South African Revenue Service, is regarded as the single brilliant government department – managed by the Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, who has been considered for the most sought after financial posts in the USA.

The first cause is that the new South Africa’s poverty, rather,  is a poverty of ideas, a poverty of creativity, a poverty of spirit on the part of many of the leaders towards the people.  Above all, there is a poverty of care.  As a famous old socialist said, “Surely freedom should be generous, not grasping?”

The second is that in some profound sense, there is no one in charge.

Poor President Mbeki, with his bewildering reputation for being too intelligent for the common person to understand, seems, rather, intellectually void, frozen with panic, occasionally wheeling himself on to a podium to recite one of his mandarin speeches, his balm for the insomniac.  As for his ostensible successor and probable alter-ego, Jacob Zuma is nothing if not Michelin Man on speed, expelling hot air at high velocity, whizzing around being mesmerizing, leaving everyone in his wake cross-eyed and possibly pregnant. He will go far, but who knows in what direction.

The people went through many lifetimes of trauma until they discovered that the prison door was open and they could walk out. But after the euphoria, what a desert of disregard they find themselves in.   Which way to the Promised Land? There is no Moses. There are people with power, but where are the leaders?  So in love are they with the Golden Calf on the one hand, or on the other, so genuinely desperate to find the next meal, no longer can enough people hear the restraining notes of someone like Archbishop Tutu.  There seems hardly anyone to trust, no one to make wise decisions, to deal with crises, to guide and encourage the lost.  There is no father, no mother. It is a land of orphaned, of frightened people.

But where is the country that has wondrous leaders?  Indeed, where is the child who has wondrous parents? The wise ruler exists only in fairy-tales.  In the real world, people elect the person who speaks with the most melodious tongue.

Does it matter? The law of the land – and obviously, everyone is bound to abide by the law – has granted everyone equal rights and the people can choose for themselves and get what they vote for. Not so long ago, millions suffered the extremes of human misery, not because of what was done to them, but because of what was not done: they were not granted ordinary human entitlements. They were ignored.

Now, of course, it is all different.


“The key to modernity is the village.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs (1982; Eng. trans. 1985)


© 2008,  Patricia  Morris