Disappointed idealists or just plain cynics?


Last year, I gave talk to a group of international managers at their company’s annual conference in Cape Town. They came from Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Poland, Rumania, Lebanon, France and, of course, South Africa. Their company has invested heavily in South Africa. I spoke, in my personal capacity, about the country. Only two of the managers present had any experience and knowledge of this country.

I provided some personal background. On my father’s side of the family, I am second-generation born in Southern Africa, and fourth generation on my mother’s side. I was born in Zimbabwe—then called Southern Rhodesia—and, after Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, we moved to Zambia. Eventually, my parents moved back to South Africa, where I finished my high school and university. In the early 1970s, every white South African male was required to serve in the South African Defence Force. I refused and left for England.

Two years later I found myself in the Sudan, working as an English teacher in a high school just north of Darfur province. I then joined the Omdurman Islamic University—the first non-Muslim academic ever to be hired by the institution. Eventually, I ended up as the Sudan field director for an NGO. When I left the Sudan, I returned to London for a few years and subsequently lived in Greece and the USA before returning to SA in December 1995. I had been gone 20 years.

South Africa was now a democracy. It was the beginning of a new story. South Africa has many stories. But too often they are simply and easily reduced to the 46 years of apartheid and the struggles against it. And now it is also true that the story is being reduced to the 16 years of democracy and the struggle to maintain it. Or not.

But, one of our writers put it, there are other stories as “stories as interesting and even more revelatory of the dilemmas of the 20th and 21st century.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the phrase “rainbow nation”—a metaphor that meant many things and I covered some of the factual numbers. We are a nation of 50-million people. 39.6-million blacks (almost 80%); 4.6-million whites, 4.4-million coloureds and 1.3-million Indians—or rather descendants of people of Indian sub-continent. The black population is divided into four major ethnic groups, speaking nine languages. There are numerous subgroups of which the Zulu and Xhosa subgroups are the largest. The majority of the white population is of Afrikaans descent (60%), with many of the remaining 40% being of British descent. The coloured population—the term used for mixed race people—mostly speak Afrikaans. Almost 15-million people are aged between 15 to 29 years old.

This is important.

What is also important, I told them, were two names, which they should remember: Julius Malema and Tokyo Sexwale.

What’s changed?

So what makes South Africa today so different from South Africa 20 years ago? Let’s look at the details, the small things against which we can measure individuals. Yes, we have the world’s most comprehensive constitution; yes, we have democracy. But what about at a personal, everyday level?

Our national sportsmen and women are on tour in the rest of the world.

Our ballet, opera and stage companies are filled with black and white performers as are the audiences.

Big international acts come our way.

Our restaurants are up there in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s list

Our winemakers and their wines are welcomed abroad

Our beaches are packed. (When I left SA, most of the public beaches were reserved for “Whites Only”. Hard to believe, yes, but it was so.

And we hosted the FIFA World Cup 2010. Did that benefit us? (Of course not. It is an event designed for the benefit of FIFA.)

Our writers, artists and musicians are globally recognised—Vusi Mahlasela played in New York city at John Lennon’s remembrance party in October.

What else is different? The current question at dinner parties in South Africa is whether we will see development or decline in the future. But let’s put that in perspective

The economic situation in SA from 1980 to 1994 was one of prolonged and steep decline.

The 16 years that followed the advent of democracy have been called “the second golden age”.

But what now?

There are 283 municipalities.

In 2008/2009, 89 received disclaimers or adverse opinions for their annual audit.

An additional 36 could not finalise their audits.

In 2010, 57 municipalities got disclaimers and adverse opinions.

An additional 47 failed to finalise their audits.

There used to be 21 civil engineers for every 100,000 people in the municipalities. Today there are three for every 100,000. This was largely due to the passing of the Municipal Systems Act in 2000. The Act allowed mayors—an elected position—to govern in secret with a hand-picked executive committee. The ANC used it to “deploy”—i.e. find jobs for—its loyal followers. Zuma has now set about dismantling that structure to ensure municipalities are run by professionals.

There are only 800 anaesthetists working in the country.

We train 30 surgeons a year when the medical system needs a minimum of 120

We are bottom of the log in maths, maths literacy and science in our schools out of a sample of 133 countries.

80% of our schools are dysfunctional yet we spend 6.1% of our budget on education, much more than many other nations.

We have become a conduit for money laundering, the drug trade and human trafficking.

We have more than our fair share of murder and rape.

Another country

Let’s tell the story of an African country, I said. Let me describe a country to you and you tell me whether this is taken from fiction or reality and whether it is the the future, the present or the past. Here’s some pointers about this “country” I want you to imagine:

This country’s capital is the hub for the largest African airline.

It’s ports are served by fleets of ocean going liners.

There is an efficient railway network that connects it to its neighbours and which carry trade.

Publishers launch tourism travel guidebooks to the country which run to more than 800 pages long and lists hundreds of smart guest houses and things to do.

The game parks are vast, with plenty of game and accessible.

The country’s road network—more than 120 000km of it—is extensive and clearly marked maps are readily available in book shops.

The bus system covers the country and the buses run on time.

The country has vast areas of rich agricultural land.

The country’s education system produces some of the continents finest experts.

The country has unmeasured deposits of diamonds, gold and other minerals.

Fact or fiction?

Does such a country exist on the African continent?

Is it a future projection of what we’d like to see?

Is it a description of the state of the South African nation today?

Well, it’s fact, for starters.

Some of you may recognise the country about which I am talking. And no, it is not present day South Africa (though it could be). The country I have described is what the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was in 1960.

Between 1965 and 1997, this country I have described—the DRC—was run by Mobutu, a man who developed the cult of the personality and presented himself as a god-sent saviour for the country. He was assassinated in 1997 and Laurent Kabila took over. He in turn was also assassinated, and in an ironic salute to the country’s name, his son Joseph was installed as President. Elections were held six years later at a cost of US$500-million (paid for by the USA and the EU) and Joseph was installed as the legitimate elected leader.

Today, the DRC is a little different.

It’s airline is now dilapidated and unsafe.

It’s ports are unused.

The railway system has entirely collapsed.

There are no tourist guidebooks and there are no tourists.

It’s game parks are run down. People who have been there speak of the eerie silence of the forests. Everything has been hunted for food. There are not even the sounds of birds.

It has less than 1 000km of passable roads and those must be traversed in a 4×4.

It has no bus system.

More than 17% of the population are malnourished and 10% of the urban population. The rural people live on cassava, the staple diet, low in nutritional value.

The education system has collapsed.

It still has vast mineral wealth. But that is not going to solve the economy of the country. Think about cobalt. There are vast reserves being mined as we speak. Mined by hand by extremely low-paid labourers, packed into sacks and trucked out the country and shipped out of South Africa’s ports to China where it is then processed.

And that is where the money is made.

None of the money stays in the DRC. The mining companies don’t pay taxes (they say that paying bribes is simply a form of tax).

Frog in the water

There is a scenario that everyone likes to quote, and I am no different. It is the story of the frog in a pot of cold water. It will sit there happily. Place the pot on a very light gas flame and the frog will continue to sit their until it boils to death because it is oblivious to the gradually increasing heat of the water.

The question we must ask is: are we the frogs in the water? The controversial financial advisor Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, visited here recently. He was very popular. But when he was asked about future investments in the country he cited the story of the frog. It was not well received.

There are two problems with the question: Are we the frog in the water?

First, it is politically incorrect.

Second, to give a politically correct answer will be simply to avoid the issue.

Let’s look at some examples of why we may or may not be frogs. I was born in Zimbabwe. And though I left there when I was still a boy, people in South Africa—both black and white—often ask me if I think South Africa will become another Zimbabwe? Do I know the answer? No. But let me tell you three stories:

A few years ago, the then editor of a prominent women’s magazine—you know the kind, a very glossy, high fashion, lots of bling on every page—was at a very smart dinner for Gauteng’s elite and powerful females. Now, let me tell you about the Gauteng elite—named by the Unilever Institute of Marketing as “Black Diamonds”—they are wealthy, poised and powerful. At the dinner party was the Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe. This was at the start of the “land reclamation” that Mugabe had launched against white farmers. The editor was seated at Grace’s table. During the evening, most of the black South African women approached Grace and praised her for what her husband was doing: taking back the land.

The second story is about a project I was working on about land reform in South Africa and its relation to small-holder farmers and food security. I was at a panel discussion chaired by the chairman of the Parliamentary Land Reform Commission. The audience was mostly young black students from the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town. A film was shown in which two incidents of land reform were depicted.

One told the story of a group of people who had laid claim to land, which was not challenged. The claim was recognised and the group were now debating endlessly among themselves as to how it should be managed in the future. The second film was about a land claim that was challenged. A family living in Soweto claimed a 500ha piece of land north of Gauteng. The white farmer, whose family had been there for four generations challenged the claim.

One thing you must understand about land claims in SA is that the Land Reform Act of 1994 says that only land that was settled after 1913—the date when laws were passed to forcibly remove blacks off their land, can be claimed.

The white farmer said his family had bought the land from a local chief in the late 1800s. The black family said, no, they were there in 1913 and the land had been taken from them, not bought. They won. The white farmer said: OK, I have built a multi-million rand slaughter house on the farm and have a successful meat supply business. I will relinquish the land but leave me with the butchery and I will guarantee to buy your cattle and share the profits from the butchery.

The family refused. They visit the farm once a month usually on a Sunday for a picnic and the butchery has gone to ruin.

A student stood up and said that the white man should not have argued about the claim. I posed the question as to whether, given our limited land resources—and SA only has 11% of its land mass that is arable—wouldn’t it have made sense to negotiate with the white farmer, keep the land and butchery working (it provided employment) and that it was a matter of management of resources that was most important.

Well, I was shot down in flames. The chairman said he would not tolerate listening to another white man saying blacks could not farm the land and besides, it was not the management of the land that was at issue. Justice was the issue, and it was justice to give back the land even if it was not used for “20 or 40 years”.

Land reform is a very, very emotional issue in SA, and it is a potential time bomb.

The media in Europe and South Africa made much of the devastation and starvation that followed Mugabe’s land claims. However, some years on and Zimbabwe is producing 60% more food than it did before the land claims, mostly from small farmers who are moving back onto the land. It is also producing more tobacco than it did, again from small farm holders. Admittedly, the land is owned by absentee landlords mostly generals in the army. It’s reverted back to a feudal system, but it is feeding the nation.

So when you ask me are we frogs? Are we going to become another Zimbabwe?

I don’t know.

I do know that we need to ensure that our farms guarantee our food sovereignty.

So, what does it mean to be a South African and an African.

Even the word “African” is a big issue. I write opinion pieces for various corporations. Often they will want me to say: “African chartered accountants” when they mean “black” chartered accountants. I consider myself as an African. I was born here. My father’s father was born here; my mother’s grandfather’s father was born here. I have lived on the continent for more than two thirds of my life. This is my country.

We must make it work. One of the common arguments made by African apologists is that Africa was colonised and that the destruction is still being felt. The usual argument against this is to point to the Far East. Much of this argument is well-covered in Tim Butcher’s two highly recommended books: “Blood River” and “Chasing the Devil”.

The Malaysia scenario

Malaysia was colonised for centuries, including by the British, who, true to form were cruel and racist. It got independence in 1960 (about when the Congo became independent). It was also drawn into the Cold War. But Malaysia got through it. The Congo and much of Africa did not. Malaysia is a successful country, part of the bigger world.

The Hong Kong scenario

Also colonised by the British for centuries. Freetown in Sierra Leone has a natural harbour that is bigger than Hong Kong’s; it has raw material nearby, and it lies dormant; Hong Kong traded. Trade made for more trade. It prospered. In Sierra Leone trade led to rivalry, stagnation and ultimately a bloody and vicious war. Why?

So, is Africa doomed? I don’t know. I do know that there are many young people of all colours who are making it work. I have a friend. He’s white, he’s in his late 20s and he makes music videos. His friends are mostly black because there’s is the sort of music he likes and he hangs out with them. When one of the band’s became successful, they asked him to make the music video. He did. He was over at the house of his friends—black—and he’s introduced to the father of the friend. This is the guy who made the video. The friend’s father—an ex activist—says, why didn’t you use a black guy? The kids just laugh and tell him he’s out of touch. We used him because he’s the best, says the son. End of story. This is the sort of thing that will make this country work.

I’ll tell you another story why I think it may work. I edited a magazine called The Big Issue. It’s a job creation scheme. We produced a magazine which is then bought by unemployed and disadvantaged people. They buy it for R7 and they sell it for R14. I had an internship programme, helping to train young wannabe journalists. I had two young guys and they wanted to write about restaurants and good stuff that was happening in the townships. I said OK, but I want you to write about new stuff, not the restaurants that everyone has written about—like Mzoli’s in Gugs. But they wanted to do the easy stuff, the stuff that had been done.

I looked out my window. There was a building going up about 100m away, and outside on the pavement were two black woman with a gas cooker and pots of food and they were preparing food for the building site workers. They knew they had a market.

I said to them: “Those women are entrepreneurs and they are doing food. Interview them/ eat the food. Find out what it takes for them to get their stuff there.”

That proved to be a great story.

And that’s my point. These are the people who do make a difference. In my very emotional moments, I think Africa—the world—will be saved by the women of the continents.

And then I think of Sarah Palin or Carla Bruno and I am not so sure it is a gender thing.

Where does our political future lie? And where will our cultural future go? Those are huge questions, but let’s take two very important people and talk about the political future. It will also go a long way to explaining our cultural future.

Julius Malema and Tokyo Sexwale. The two represent opposite sides of the political spectrum within the ANC. Both have presidential ambitions.

Julius Malema is the current president of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and has been likened by both black and white commentators as a “Hitler”.

Sexwale is a billionaire, a long-serving ANC political activist and is currently the Minister of Human Settlements.

The accusations against Malema are not just random comments. He has huge appeal to the young and the dispossessed. At an impromptu rally on the UCT campus, he drew more than 800 people, and his rhetoric was wildly cheered. The ANCYL claims it can bring 3-4-million voters to the polling booths for the ANC. He talks of nationalising mines and recently they have started targeting banks with their criticism. The arguments are at best flawed and at worst rubbish. But they stick. His notion of nationalising is closer to a form of fascism.

I mentioned that significant figure of nearly 15-million people in SA are between the ages of 15-29. They form the bulk of the unemployed and dissatisfied.

Let’s look at some other important statistics.

One third of the population is food insecure. i.e. they have no sure knowledge of where their next meal is coming from.

More than 25% of children under the age of six are malnourished.

Sexwale is an urban, smart politician. But he’s old school. He does command respect and he is a great orator, but he’s not a populist. He will have big business behind him and he does know how to negotiate with COSATU, the trade union body. When I left SA, he was sitting in prison on Robben Island.

Another consideration. The right to know versus national security. The government is making strong moves to restrict the freedom of the press. It’s most draconian proposal is the Protection of Information Bill, which has been almost unanimously condemned. The government is adamant it won’t back down but the law will basically enable any one within a department to refuse to release information on the grounds of “national security”. The critics of this Bill say it is being pushed through to protect corrupt officials. They say that the ANC’s national democratic revolution is no more than a national tender revolution.

Media Appeals Tribunal. A government appointed watchdog that will give government control of the news rooms through coercion and fear.

But these are relatively inconsequential matters when compared to the problem facing the judiciary. There are sustained and serious attempts to undermine the judicial system through the appointment of people better known for their political shrewdness rather than their legal acumen. People such as Dumisa Ntsebeza, an “influential member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and plays a decisive role in who gets appointed”. He’s also very pro-Zuma.

Zuma reinforced this view of the undermining of the judiciary’s independence when he recently appointed Nomgcoba Jiba and Nomvula Mokhatla as Deputy National Directors of Public Prosecutions*. Another controversial move was his choice of director of National of Public Prosecutions Menzi Simelane, still a hotly debated issue.

Jiba’s husband, a lawyer, was apparently convicted on charges relating to him dipping into the trust fund of his firm of attorneys. The senior prosecutor who pursued the husband was reputedly Advocate Gerrie Nel who, it is alleged was targeted by Jiba in what was called “a personal and political” vendetta and an attempt at “what appeared to be a bid to disrupt the investigation into former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi”. Selebi was later convicted.

So what are our strengths weaknesses obstacles and threats? We cannot assume that because the economy is growing at 5% per annum (GDP) that is not performing poorly. There has been massive industrial decline, outsourcing has weakened the labour class. The challenge is how to boost growth to 6% yet ensure equitable distribution of wealth and eradication of poverty. Our growth goals, however, are not predicated upon the health and durability of our natural resources and ecosystem services.

Strengths

Constitutional democracy with an effective Bill of Rights;

Independent courts

A media that is still free—despite current threats;

Generally sound macro-economic management

Public debt is less than 36% of GDP—and external debt is only 16% of GDP.

Vast natural resources.

Tourism, which now contributes 8.3% of GDP—much more than mining. (Automobile production contributes as much to GDP as mining. In 2008 we produced 600 000 vehicles of which 170 000 were exported.)

Strong auditing and reporting standards and regulation of securities exchanges are the best in the world.

Weaknesses

No progress in eliminating inequality since 1994.

Poverty: 42% of our population lives on less than two dollars a day. Almost 15 million South Africans subsist on children’s, old-age and disability allowances.

Between 35% and 40% of black South Africans are unemployed or have given up their search for employment.

The failure of our education system. Only 22% of children who entered the school system in 1995 passed matric in 2007 and only 5.2% did so with university exemption. Only 1.5% passed maths at the higher grade.

Opportunities

The growth of a multiracial middle class.

The spirit of individuals

Threats

Opportunism pretending to be ideology. Policies should be based on pragmatism, consultation, the rule of law and concern for ordinary people.

Imposing demographic representivity in the economy, coupled with deployment.

Global environmental and economic threat.

Land reform. It is not being tackled.

Corruption. On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions we have gone from 23rd position in 1996 to 54th place 2008.

AIDS continues to kill five thousand people every week.

Attempts to regulate the press through the Protection of Information Act and the Media Appeals Tribunal are serious threats to our democracy.

Loss of skills. Since 1990 between 750 000 and a million South Africans have emigrated.

Undermining of judicial independence.

Conclusion

There is no conclusion to the stories of Africa.

But I will leave you with one. There’s a woman I know—we shall call her Nomkhita. She is 70 years old, and lives in Khayelitsha. Ten years ago, the HIV and Aids epidemic was sky-rocketing in South Africa. Nomkhita is a crèche owner serving children up to six years of age, saw how this epidemic affected the children and how ashamed their parents were to ask for help.

So, she looked around and then went to a workshop run by an organisation called Abalimi Bezekhaya — farmer’s of home. Nomkhita and two other women started a gardening project. She now grows vegetables for her family, her creche and enough to sell in the market.

I know it’s a woman story but it’s one of hope. And she is making a difference. The thing is: we all can. It’s whether we choose to or not.

* Additional information added after the talk.

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