OPINION: It is frightening how little has changed

Norman McFarlane

On April 8 2015, I penned in this column a piece titled Ill fares the land.

The title was not mine. I borrowed it from one of the last books published by noted public intellectual, Tony Judt, just six months before his untimely death on August 6, 2010.

In chapter one of his book, he writes: “There is much to be angry about: growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; injustices of class and caste; economic exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege occluding the arteries of democracy.”

He knew full well that he was dying when he wrote the book, which made his abject dismay at the state of the social democratic project, of which he had been an ardent proponent his entire adult life, heartbreakingly poignant.

He was, of course, lamenting the demise of social democracy in the country of his birth, England, the greater pan-European landscape and North America, but he could just as easily have been writing about our fledgling democracy, which at that time, 21-years old, seemed to be in terminal decline.

The country was in the thrall of then President Jacob Zuma, and the disgraceful plundering of the public purse to build a monument to his hubris – Nkandla – was a matter of public record.

State institutions designed to protect the best interests of the citizenry at large were under siege by forces determined to bend them to their will for personal gain, or to progress dubious political agendas that would lead to enrichment of the few, at the expense of the many.

Chapter nine institutions to which we ought to have been able to turn for succour, were fighting desperate rearguard actions against impossible odds, in an attempt to exercise their constitutional mandate: to protect and serve the people.

It was a dark time in our short democratic history, but we knew that come 2019, the then infinitesimal glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel would brighten, and a new day would dawn, but just five years later, are we any better off?

Thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel brightened early, in December 2017, when Cyril Ramaphosa managed to slay the dragon that threatened to consume our society, and the long awaited reset, the end of an error, as it became known, came to pass.

The age of Ramaphoria assailed us, and we most all of us bought into the notion – foolishly, perhaps – that one man could save us from the bleak fate which just a few years before, had seemed inevitable.

As time passed and the uncomfortable memories of the Zuma years began to fade, many of us fell into the trap of believing that things were actually getting better.

Granted, we did see changes that seemed to bode well for the future – appointment of the likes of the redoubtable Shamilla Batohi as National Director of Public Prosecutions; a couple of cabinet reshuffles that cleared some, but not all, of the self-interested dead wood out of the executive, and brought some, but not enough, capable technocrats into key posts; a public commitment to root out corruption in the administration, and to put a stop to the crippling, wholesale thievery of state capture and hold accountable those who perpetrated it.

Perhaps our mistake was giving in to that all too human sentiment – hope.

Like an abused spouse who believes their abuser’s promise that “it will never happen” because that is what we so desperately want, we bought the line we were sold, ignoring against our better judgement the warning signs that the promise was as empty as the Rub’ al Khali.

The staggering unemployment that we have suffered for the past 26 years is now worse than it has ever been.

The incomprehensible extent of our inequality, which makes us the most unequal society in the world, deepens by the day, as more and more people slip below the poverty datum line, and literally face starvation.

Our national debt is headed for levels never before seen in our entire history, and that against a backdrop of the last of the ratings agencies finally giving up on us, and consigning us to the penury and ignominy of junk status.

If you believe the likes of the radical economic transformation populists, this is of no consequence, for our salvation does not lie with institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Rather, our fiscal salvation must come from the likes of the New Development Bank, an incarnation of the emerging market economic collective, BRICS, but what will be the price ticket attached to a loan from that institution, and is it likely to be any less onerous than a loan from one of the so-called Bretton Woods money-lenders?

Yes, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is, as things stand, probably incalculable, but it is the manner in which it was handled by our government that has caused the economic and social devastation, rather than the viruws itself.

Thousands of people face criminal charges for infractions of the lockdown regulations, so many of which were counterintuitive, confusing, contradictory, arbitrary, and in many instances just plain wrong-headed.

The hundreds of billions of rands set aside to throw a lifeline to the millions of South Africans tipped into penury by the pandemic and government’s response to it, have been outrageously plundered by the many of the very people to whom we look for succour at times like this, and despite our president’s solemn promise to root out any and all Covid-19-related corruption, we have yet to see a single person held to account for this disgraceful theft.

Inasmuch as we have waited in vain for arrests and convictions to flow from the State Capture Commission it seems we will also wait in vain for arrests and convictions of the Covid-19 thieves.

But it gets even worse. No sooner had President Ramaphosa written publicly to his party, entreating it to root out the corruption that has infected it at every level, than we hear of a sitting cabinet minister giving a ride at taxpayers expense, in a South African Air Force jet to a cohort of ANC members, none of whom is an elected representative, to Zimbabwe for a ruling party-to-ruling-party engagement with Zanu-PF.

Incredibly, the leader of the ANC delegation, Ace Magashule, makes a public statement to the effect that no wrong has been done, and the response of the president is to call for a report from the culpable minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, which, after he has received it, appears to be “satisfied” with her explanation.

That the ANC subsequently bent its head in mock shame and promised to “pay back the money” (where have we heard that one before?), is cold comfort.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Mapisa-Nqakula should be fired, but as things stand, she is unlikely to even suffer the fate of her colleague, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who, for the relatively innocuous infraction of breaking lockdown, was docked two months pay.

The only thing that seems to have changed since August 8 2015, is the name of the individual who sits in the big chair at the Union Buildings.