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South Africans are feeling glum

February 20, 2008

South Africans are a fickle lot: we succumb to bouts of misery, or swing wildly into ecstasy, at the slightest provocation. We need to keep a sense of perspective. This is a country that has faced oppression and dehumanisation since 1652. We are all carrying a very heavy history. We were never going to sort it out overnight.

Azania is going through one of its periodic slumps. Everyone is depressed, gloomy, and if the papers are to be believed, flocking to Australia and New Zealand. “Will the last one to leave the country”, goes the joke, “please blow out the candle.”

Our currency, apparently, is in free fall. The lights are going out because the government was too stupid – or too busy gorging itself on the proceeds of the arms deal – to plan for the future, and we apparently face years of electricity shortages. (Yet no one is being proactive and buying energy efficient light bulbs, exploring micro-generation, or even just switching the plugs off at night).

The international media has picked this up, with articles in the British press, and a BBC documentary putting in a glum appearance recently.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

The energy story belongs in a screw-up Hall of Shame. President Thabo Mbeki’s government has dithered for a decade over upgrading power plants. With the economy growing 5% a year, the grid gave out last month. The minerals and energy minister, Buyelwa Patience Sonjica, promptly suggested a solution: With rolling cuts a likely fact of life until new electricity capacity comes on line in 2013, South Africans should just “go to sleep earlier.”

The local papers are filled with despair too. Apparently, we are seeing record numbers of people flocking to emigration agencies, and the crises we are experiencing will worsen because of the growing skills gap. It will end in tears. Just another African failure…..

There is plenty of bad news coming out of South Africa, so I understand the current pessimism. In fact, I’ve been there. I visited South Africa in August 2006 to renew my British visa, and spent three weeks queuing at the department of home affairs. I missed my flight because of their incompetence, and had to pay £400 for a new one. (By contrast, it took the British embassy three hours to issue my visa, a substantially more complicated bureaucratic exercise than I was expecting from home affairs.)

It’s widely known that home affairs is beyond useless. This might cost South Africans the right to visit the UK without a visa. I wrote a lot of very negative stuff when I got back to Scotland. But I was viewing the whole country through the prism of home affairs, which wasn’t fair. What I wrote was the truth, but not the whole truth.

When it’s not doom and gloom it’s signs and wonders: Mandela magic, the elections, the Rainbow Nation power station, all of that. Just a few months ago we had another South African miracle moment: we beat England at the World Cup Rugby; suddenly everyone believed again, we all loved each other and everything was going to “come right”. The world cup football in 2010 was going to be the cherry on top.

What, objectively, has changed since then?

Zuma got elected and the power cuts started.

Is it really that bad? Why do we swing from peak to pit like that? Are we a nation of manic depressives?

OK, the power thing is a fucking embarrassment. It has exposed the government as the corrupt incompetents are lot of us have been saying they are. But now, hopefully, they will be forced to act.

And Zuma? Well, I don’t think that’s all bad news. The man himself is a real liability, but I rather suspect that many of the more canny political operators in South Africa are using him as a blunt instrument to smash the Mbeki camp. I suspect he’ll find himself hoist by his own petard before becoming president of the country.

We need to be vigilant about South Africa. We need to hold our government accountable. But we also need to keep a sense of perspective. There’s plenty going right with South Africa.

Personally, I am glad I don’t live in South Africa right now. I am short of patience a I’d be seething at our government’s complete abdication of its mandate, which is a real slap in the face of those that died for political freedom.

But in the long run, I am generally more positive about South Africa’s future than Britain’s. Britain is a has-been nation, an imperialist hangover that has outlived its historical moment and is clinging on to dimly-perceived past glories. It has little current vision or sense of itself in the word, and so acts as an obedient hand maiden to the US.

The war in Iraq shows Britain has learnt nothing from its imperialist past. CCTV, ID cards, detention without trial: unless there’s some major shake up, I don’t see any long term future here.

I believe South Africa’s time is still coming.

I just don’t know if I can wait that long.

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