In the closing credits of the 1988 comic movie masterpiece, John Cleese’s A Fish Called Wanda, the audience is advised of the imagined fate of the lead villains after the film ends.
In the film, criminal demolitions expert Otto West, played by Kevin Kline, awarded best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was described by one critic as “stupid, violent, narcissistic gullible and deceitful”. And the movie tells the audience that after escaping near doom and death, “Otto emigrated to South Africa and became minister of justice”.
In a movie heavy on laughs, irony and wit, this tailpiece line drew hilarity at most of its worldwide screenings. After all, in 1988 South Africa was ground zero for injustice writ large: SADF special forces raid Botswana and kill ANC insurgents, ANC limpet mines and car bombs explode against civilians and state targets throughout the country and eight black civilians are gunned down in Strijdom Square, Pretoria, by “Wit Wolf” Barend Strydom. In June that year, a nationwide state of emergency was proclaimed, allowing the president and executive to rule by decree and ban and detain activists and organisations without recourse to the courts.
This was seen as the dismal response of a beleaguered administration, basically out of options, short of discarding every policy and shibboleth the National Party had held near and dear since its rise to power in 1948. It would take another two years until 1990 when new president FW de Klerk realised the game was up and announced a wholesale U-turn on every central plank of the prospectus which had seen his party win 11 white general elections over four decades.
In his state of the nation address last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa invoked the struggle against apartheid and the resilience of South Africans in the face of its injustices as a spur for hope and optimism at a time of literal and figurative darkness in the country.
Ramaphosa does not do irony, and his wit is of the leaden sort, but his twin announcements — placing the country under a nationwide state of disaster and the appointment of yet another minister (in addition to the four “dealing” with the electricity crisis) — suggest he is out of options and now prefers performative gestures, bureaucratic shuffling and blunt instruments. Anything but boldly announce that he too confronts a disaster almost entirely of his own party’s making, and nothing short of junking every centrepiece of ANC ideology and most of the incompetent incumbents who have presided over the real state of disaster can right-size the mess we are in.
But caution and half-measures, clichés and double speak are the leitmotifs of his beleaguered administration.
And if under the grim fist of apartheid, the world could laugh at the idea of a minister of justice in 1988 South Africa, landmark for gross injustices and rights deprivations, how the world (to the extent it still pays attention to us) must chuckle at the idea of “a minister of electricity” for 2023 South Africa, a modern industrial economy reduced to the dark ages as a result of incompetence, political meddling, theft and corruption and a gaping lack of planning and basic maintenance.
Still, to be fair we have a minister of basic education (incumbent Angie Motshekga has held the post for an uninterrupted 14 years or for one generation of schoolchildren). The results of her tenure were highlighted by her former colleague, former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who last week underlined the disaster of what she quaintly termed “load-shedding our children”. She called out the shocking survey results which reveal that 82% of 10-year-olds in grade 4 could not read for meaning, a regression back to 2011 and before. All this on the watch of the current minister. And it is not so much resources (education receives more money than any other delivery department in the country, and as a percentage of GDP one of the highest allocations in the developing world) but how and where it is spent and the inability of government to face off against the mighty SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).
Then we have long-serving minister of police, Bheki Cele (in office since 2018 but previously national police commissioner back in 2009). He denounced the shocking and cold-blooded assassination of famed rapper AKA, Kiernan Forbes, on Friday night outside a restaurant in Florida Road, Durban. Indeed the killing of public celebrities understandably creates big news and ministerial promises of action. But on Monday five people were shot and killed outside Durban in Mariannhill, which last year saw seven people massacred at a tuck shop. The latest stats indicate that 72 people are murdered every day in South Africa. The culture of pervasive lawlessness is now so deep-rooted in the county, from the construction industry to sabotage at beleaguered Eskom and the vandalisation of everything from suburban robots to national rail lines, that we are indeed a mafia state. Cele, of course, is too big a fish in the ANC shark tank to be relieved of his duties.
And, perhaps more importantly, the shallow bench of appointees bestriding the police service answerable to him suggests that even changing the top politician will not lead to the root and branch changes in the top heavy and grossly underperforming service for which he is answerable.
It is barely worth enumerating the dismal statistics gifted to the nation by its long-serving minister of transport, the recently exited Fikile Mbalula who fell upwards and is now secretary-general of the ANC. Having previously worked his skills as minister of police, see above, he has delivered to his successor at transport the inbox from hell. Analyst Nick Hedley wrote recently that in the first 11 months of 2022, only 143m tonnes of goods were moved by rail, a 26% decline in a decade from the 192m tonnes railed in 2012. The carnage on our roads and the belching emissions from the rail to road flight is only one consequence.
The lost export and production casualties for our mining sector (in addition to the production outages caused by load-shedding) is another. The recent Mining Indaba captured it all in one headline: “Eskom, Transnet kill mining’s potential”. Last year, Richards Bay Coal Terminal, which handles 70% of SA’s exports (much needed in energy starved Europe), recorded its 30-year lowest capacity due, according to the Business Times, “logistical problems at Transnet”.
Still, Ramaphosa demands that business doesn’t shout at government “from the rooftops” as though the quiet whispers to date have not moved the needle. Nor is government moved to allow the far better performing Western Cape to take charge of its own railways and ports, relieving government of the pressure in at least one export hub. Rather fail the whole country and its vital industries and livelihoods than raise the flag of ideological surrender. Or, God forbid, allow another party to demonstrate its competence. “All must fail and no-one else should succeed” is the calling card of Ramaphosaism.
So, shifting about this dismal group of clapped-out politicians is unlikely to change the course and narrative on which we are now set, vertiginously downward.
But if matters at the executive level of government are dismal, what about the legislature empowered by our constitution to hold the cabinet to account?
There has been a heap of criticism of Ramaphosa’s decision to place the country under the disaster regime management of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (whose occupancy of ministerial office dates to 1994 unbelievably, with dismal results in all she has touched, from health to local government via home affairs). But the most misplaced, in practice rather than fine theory, is that the disaster regime will remove ministerial diktat and regulation and government officials from parliamentary scrutiny.
Last week, before the disaster promulgation, parliament, or three of its committees, had the opportunity to question the Eskom leadership and its outgoing CEO Andre de Ruyter. It proved to be a festival of ignorance and a feast of prejudice and conspiracy-mongering which would make QAnon blush.
Veteran journalist Carol Paton, who endured the event, described it as “two hours of De Ruyter bashing”. He was accused by ANC MPs of — variously — faking his own poisoning, lying about the state of Eskom and of burning diesel instead of coal, not realising that the only quick way to keep lights on is to use Eskom’s open cycle gas turbines, which need diesel not coal, and in its absence the entire grid could collapse.
The basic facts of economic and energy life elude our lawmakers.
Excluding them from further scrutiny of our electricity disaster is the very least of our problems.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA