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State of the Nation

March 2, 2007

I found my recent visit to South Africa shocking on a very personal, visceral level. I was there for three weeks, applying for a visa to return to Britain. As the weeks dragged on, and the Department of Home Affairs failed to produce the simple piece of paper I needed, I was filled with dread at the thought that I might have to stay in South Africa.

While I loved seeing friends and family, enjoyed the food, wine and scenery, and found the country dynamic and thrilling, I was really concerned at how bad things are.

I was shocked at the crime. Not so much at the crime against property, which is to be expected in a country where we have such a split between rich and poor. What shocked me was the murder, rape and mayhem, the levels of pointless personal violence. Statistics show it is going down, but the experience of it is getting worse, as every day your chances of being the victim increase. South Africans – especially poor, Black South Africans – are not safe in the streets or in their homes. That’s not the country we fought for.

I was shocked at the xenophobia. In the month I was in Cape Town, 29 Somali refugees were killed by mobs of locals. You get racist attacks in the UK, stirred up by the tabloid press, but nothing on that scale.

I was shocked at the way people drive. People will tell you how it’s no longer safe to travel on the N2 because of people throwing rocks from bridges. They’ll tell you this while they’re overtaking around a blind corner at 180 kilometres an hour, and fiddling with the radio to find a staion they like. We’ve stoppped valuing life in South Africa.

I was shocked at the blase approach to the Aids crisis.

I was shocked at the unaccountability of government, the fact that its departments don’t work and no one cares, that it is not carrying out its mandate and isn’t even bothering to excuse the fact.

I was appalled at the poor service people get from companies, particularly Telkom.

Most of all, though, I was horrified at people’s attitudes. Most people complain, and then say, “but what can you do?”. South Africans are like the proverbial frogs in boiling water. We’ve got so used to living in a disaster zone we’ve accepted it as the norm.

People complain about the crime, and then say, “but there’s crime everywhere, South Africa is no different.”

Oh yes it is. I live in Glasgow, which has a reputation for being the most violent city in Western Europe. It has the highest murder rate and the lowest male life expectancy. For my first eight months here, I lived in a fairly wild area of the East End, and yet I felt perfectly safe walking around alone late at night. In general, if you don’t go out looking for trouble in Glasgow, you won’t find it.

Which is very different from South Africa, where the pure randomness of the crime is what is so shocking.

If I hear one more person saying “South Africa has so much potential”, I am going to scream. Sure it has potential – same as a street kid born in a gutter might have the potential to be a brain surgeon or concert pianist. But you’ve got to nurture and protect potential. You can’t just blithely go about your business and think “alles sal regkom“.

I know South Africa has a lot of potential. I saw it everywhere, and it was really inspiring. But it’s going to get smothered under the sheer weight of everything that’s so wrong with the country.

The truly horrifying thing about almost all of South Africa’s problems is that most of them can be solved fairly easily. Not overnight, but with some strategic thinking and careful planning we could solve a lot.

I have always been an ‘Afro-optimist’. I voted for the ANC in 1994, and have always done what I could to shed my own racial and political baggage and contribute to making the country work. I wanted to be one of the people helping to solve the problems. Since South Africa doesn’t particularly want to solve its problems, I was unemployed or under-employed for most of my twenties. I should have voted for the Soccer Party, who’s programme consisted of legalising dope and encouraging football.

I know Britain is a richer country than South Africa, but the fact that I get better service from the British state as a foreigner than I get from my own country bothers me. I can get free health care, help with getting a job at the job centre, advice on setting up a business and even a grant I can use to study. Also, for the first time in my life I have a full time job in my field. This makes me feel that Britain values me more highly than my own country does, which is a shame, because the feeling isn’t mutual.

Come on, South Africa. At least make an effort. Turn some of that vast wealth into resources that everyone can benefit from.

Let’s look at some of those problems:

Take the fact that the Department of Home Affairs absolutely does not work. State administration is straightforward. People have been doing it since at least the days of ancient Egypt. The Greek, Roman and Ottoman Empires had a crack at it, as did the British. You would think that by now, a best practice model would have evolved. It’s only 4 000 years. And the fact that we have computers should make things easier.

A little bit of political will would sort Telkom out in no time.

A comprehensive HIV-Aids treatment plan, with counselling and education and a unified message, would start to bring down the rates of new infections and prolong the health of people living with the virus.

Intelligent investment in infrastructure, education and health – not arms – would create jobs, boost the economy and lay the foundations for the future.

I could go on and on. Do you need me to do your job for you?

But there’s no political will. The kleptocratic government is concerned only with getting itself and its friends as wealthy as possible. The opposition parties want to get their snouts in the trough.

At least make an effort.

And the Left is committing mass suicide. The trade unions supporting Zuma. The New Social Movements turning on each other and collapsing into bitterness over who gets a pittance in funding from some sympathetic agency. Instead of uniting around some kind of common vision for what the country could be – a new Freedom Charter, if you like – the Left is dissolving into acrinomy and squabbling over resources.

The thing is, South Africa didn’t really change structurally at the end of apartheid. We used a mulitracial veneer to cover over the cracks, but we’ve never dealt with the underlying issues: the fact that the vast majority of people have been dispossessed of their country. The wealth used to be in white hands, now it is in the hands of big business, which is slightly less white than before. It needs to be in the hands of everyone, true economic democracy. But if we can’t have that, let’s at least have the functioning, social democratic, bourgeoise parliamentary state we voted for.

What a disaster.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2007 1:36 am

    read a bunch of your blogs (researching Crowley, stumbled up your page) and i am inspired and intrigued. i live in Canada and the fnords are all around. i frequently hear planes pass by overhead, and i often wait for the sound of chaos to commence (not sure what i would expect to hear, maybe airraid sirens???). now, i am pretty well educated (though only 21) and the thought is ridiculous, but none-the-less still present (maybe it was the double murder of two of my friends: nothing like hitting it close to home to inspire fear). personally, i think that the age of computers and the internet (though creating much opportunity) can help reinforce negativity and seclusion amongst the young (people dont interact enough anymore) and the necessity and interaction of family seems less and less present. we (North America, which was a term brought about in the 80’s i believe, to seperate the southern portion of America) have problems with gay people adopting kids, but we’ll let any moron redneck with a shotgun and confederation flag have as many as he wishes (the more, the larger the wellfare cheque, right?)
    ive kinda gotten of topic, but hell.
    keep writing, and i’ll keep reading

  2. Dave permalink
    March 6, 2007 5:51 pm

    Walton, great post, as is your previous one on the same topic. I feel exactly the same way about the UK and South Africa.

  3. ~jacolene~ permalink
    April 2, 2007 7:33 am

    I pretty much feel the same way you do. I just can’t put it into words as well. I cried when I read this because it is true. I am sad about the state my homeland is in. The fact that I have to live in the UK to save up so that I can study something that will hopefully one day help young South Africans makes me sad. Nevertheless I am going back at the end of this year. I am afraid that there will be no future for me, but I will try. I will be living in Cape Town and I will be surrounded by the news headlines of “tik”- epidemics, gang violence, child rape, “bergies” and corrupt politicians. Looking forward to it. :(

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