OPINION: It’s the elephant in the room, stoopid…

Vusi Thembekwayo

How does an almost-65-year-old white columnist write about a prominent black businessman who has well and truly set the cat among the pigeons, calling out the political establishment for doing zero to address the elephant that has been languishing in the room for the past 26 years?

If the advice said columnist received prior to putting pen to metaphorical paper was anything to go by, then the answer ought to have been, you don’t.

You don’t, because the legions of apartheid apologists out there, just waiting for something, anything, to hang their hats on in their pursuit of the fatally flawed narrative that “apartheid wasn’t all bad”, will annex what you say, in the mistaken belief that you agree with them.

You don’t, because the Breitling Socialists who vilify white monopoly capital will you call you out as a racist white bastard, while simultaneously branding the courageous businessman, Vusi Thembekwayo, who had the guts to speak his truth to power, as a sellout, an Uncle Tom, who has been seduced, bought, by that very same white monopoly capital which they hold responsible for all the ills that beset our dirt-poor, grossly unequal, poverty-stricken, increasingly divided nation.

You don’t, because by some (not all) accounts, as an old white man, you have no right to even contemplate expressing an opinion about such matters, because of the role you inevitably must have played in maintaining the brutally unequal and brutally unfair society that apartheid created and perpetuated for decades, the consequences of which, haunt our society to this day.

You don’t, because as an old white man, you are expected, nay instructed, to shut up.

But to not write about what Mr Thembekwayo said in the video he recorded and posted on Friday July 3, which subsequently went viral, would be a travesty, because he takes no prisoners in his calling out of those whom he holds responsible for the parlous state of the economy, and the circumstances in which millions of South Africans find themselves right now, 100 days plus into lockdown.

For Mr Thembekwayo favours nobody, neither ruling party government, nor opposition parties, nor labour unions, calling them all out for pursuing self-interest, instead of dismantling the legacy of apartheid and building an inclusive economy, which, if this had been done, would have placed us in a position to weather the socio-economic hurricane that descended upon us when a novel virus that should have stayed where it belonged, crossed the species boundary because of something we human beings did.

The extent to which what Mr Thembekwayo said struck a societal nerve, can be measured by the fact that the entire commentary of his viral video, which is littered with the f word – about which he is entirely unapologetic – was played in its entirety, unexpurgated, and with no censoring bleeps, on multiple radio stations on Monday morning, and the overwhelming majority of responses ignored the profanity, agreeing instead with his excoriation of the power-brokers who he holds accountable for our societal travails.

And the reaction of those whom he calls out? At the time of going to print, on Monday afternoon at 3pm, not so much as a peep. Nothing. Nada.

And little wonder at that, because with what do you come back, when your critic hits you where it hurst most?

How do you counter the narrative that he has created which people are adopting in their reflections on how and why our society is in the state that it is?

For denying it, attempting to justify your inaction by laying blame elsewhere, simply comes across as craven.

Let’s not kid ourselves. An overwhelming proportion of the inequalities and their attendant consequences which bedevil our society, must be laid squarely at the door of apartheid.

Yes, great strides have been made since 1994, with millions of people enjoying a roof over their heads, waterborne sewage, access to potable water, electricity, primary healthcare, education and much, much more.

But how can it be that 26 years into our democracy, the poor are poorer, unemployment is at an all-time high, our education system is in tatters, public healthcare is in crisis, and the economy is contracting alarmingly, not all of which, as Mr Thembewkayo points out, can be conveniently laid at the door of the coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdown?

But it’s not as if the political elite that controls – and currently micro-manages – our lives isn’t aware of the glaring fault lines, the gross inequalities, that bedevil our society.

President Cryil Ramaphosa has mournfully, on more than one occasion in his lockdown addresses, spoken of how the lockdown has exposed the harsh reality of life for the overwhelming majority of South Africans, a message repeated – almost dutifully it seems – by many of his executive, but here’s the thing: it’s almost as if this comes as some sort of surprise to them. As if they have heretofore been blissfully unaware of how horrendous life is for the majority of South Africans.

The rhetoric that follows such pronouncements routinely suggests that “something must be done”, but as Mr Thembekwayo says, “no more conferences, no more talking about the economy” in pursuit of “500 retweets”.

And he finishes with the most damning of all, pointing at the empty offices, now permanently closed as a result of the lockdown, that motivated his rant: “This is not racial. The people who worked here that I knew, were my skin colour. So don’t come to me about the white economy.”

Here’s hoping his call to action will motivate those who can effect meaningful change, but I won’t be holding my breath.