Guardian journalist John Crace coined the killer phrase “aural valium” to describe the desperate-sounding, essentially misplaced, and meaningless, optimism of besieged British prime minister Rishi Sunak.
Last Thursday, Sunak’s Conservative Party lost two heartland constituencies to resurgent Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates respectively, suggesting the Tories are on course to a sweeping defeat in next year’s general election. And just to pile on Sunak’s misery, the combination of rising interest and mortgage rates, higher cost of living and manufacturing downturn suggested that the Conservatives presumed economic competence would not be available as the electoral get-out-of-jail card next time round.
“Aural valium” means words merely fill space, calming the nervous system, lulling the senses but masking or leaving unaddressed the underlying conditions which are the root cause of patient distress.
Reading the latest Cyril Ramaphosa newsletter is to be transported, via text, into a similar drugged existence, where senses are dulled and only sunny uplands and bright skies, temporarily hidden from view, are the condition of the country he is charged with managing.
“Cyrilland” is a wondrous place according to his latest epistle. He writes: “South Africa has a good core network of public infrastructure that is improving the lives of our citizens. Our country ranks highly on indices published by the African Development Bank that evaluate the status of transportation, electricity, ICT, and water and sanitation infrastructure. South African ranks in the top five countries in Africa with the best public infrastructure.”
Wow! On the same index we are beaten by war-ravaged Libya and the top place is held by tiny Seychelles, population 99,000. And of course, the bench of comparison is countries in a continent that is the most infrastructurally underdeveloped in the world.
To achieve his own state of blissful removal, Ramaphosa needs to bulldoze from his mental landscape and avert his gaze from other indices and inconvenient facts. For example, SA’s port facilities were ranked close to the bottom in the world in the 2021 Container Port Performance Index (CPPI) released by the World Bank. Of the 370 global facilities surveyed, Cape Town was awarded 365th position and Durban 364th.
And to boast in a newsletter of our “good core network of public infrastructure” when residents of Johannesburg go days without water, Pretoria was gifted a cholera crisis, rivers and seas overflow with untreated sewage and the country suffers from 11-hour blackouts in a single day, is the sort of grim tribute vice pays to virtue. Or a denial of basic reality (not surprising since the president and cabinet via R100m backup facilities are spared the indignity of either water- or load-shedding).
Still, Ramaphosa unlike his less wealthy cabinet colleagues, does not live in government housing and physically, at least, lives outside the bubble of Bryntirion Estate where, in walled-off splendour and a stone’s throw from Union Buildings, most ministers reside. He lives in his own home in Hyde Park. Surely, one assumes and absent of wilful blindness, he must observe on his drives to the office, the complete collapse of infrastructure in what was once called the “City of Gold” rebranded by the ANC as a “world-class African city”, another mocking tribute in the face of uncollected filth, uncut grass, potholes often crater sized, traffic and street lights which don’t function because the cables have been filched and so on.
The road to Johannesburg’s ruination has been relatively swift and is glaringly apparent to even the most myopic observer, but not apparently to our national commander-in-chief.
In his textual valium, Ramaphosa does indeed make some obligatory nods in the direction of “poor delivery” lack of proper maintenance, and unspent budgets. But this is marginal to his belief that the government’s infrastructural spending will “make a big difference in people’s lives”.
These soporific clichés were written just five days after the CBD of Johannesburg literally exploded when an underground blast ripped up Lilian Ngoyi Street (previously Bree Street) and sent vehicles flying, pedestrians injured and killed, and left an urban wasteland in the once beating heart of our largest city. No mention of it in the CR note.
Perhaps that is as well as what could he say of this dystopian scene — a literal case of life imitating a disaster movie such as Independence Day or Blade Runner, only the scenes here were not created by CGI or AI but come directly from the script of CR’s ANC: unskilled cadres, looting the public coffers, lack of maintenance and no fewer than six mayors in 22 months.
I had my first job as a legal articled clerk near the scene of the current mayhem when, despite the political myopia of the city council at the time, care and time was spent on the underground nest of cables and gas and sewage systems, which, as Pieter du Toit of News24 pointed out, remain unseen by the naked eye or grasping politicians but are vital to the functioning of any city. But renaming streets was top of mind.
That blast last week ripped any pretence that Johannesburg today can continue to function as a going concern and will, under current management, simply atrophy ever further.
Dystopia on the grand scale of last week is apparent to everyone bar the president it seems.
But what of the micro, and mini disasters, less visible, but of big impact?
A young professional in the office where I work and who consults in this sector, drew my attention recently to the proliferation of a whopping 150m SIM cards distributed every year in South Africa. At first blush, this impressive total suggests we are all fully mobile, digitised, and in touch 24/7.
But as she pointed out to me, many of these SIM cards are unregistered, or the purchasers were sold the cards without ID checks and a host of safeguards stringently enshrined in the Rica legislation, simply ignored or bypassed.
And, here is the rub in terms of the government’s attempts to speedily exit SA from its greylisting, “cellphones today virtually serve as banks” as my colleague describes it. We were “greylisted” in February this year for “not complying with international standards concerning prevention of money laundering and terrorist financing”. Proliferating SIM cards, unmoored to the legislative safeguards intended, simply can land the phone, like a weapon, in the hands of a criminal or even terrorist.
Scary thought. And here is another. Like the infrastructural projects lauded by our president, which theoretically are shielded from corruption and construction mafias, communications apps and related instruments are all governed by precise and often exacting legislation and regulation. But this requires skilled and dedicated enforcers and proper enforcement.
On the other hand, the scenes of carnage in Joburg last week were, as referenced, like a dystopian movie scene. According to Wikipedia the genre of these movies are that “they are set in a society where the government is corrupt and/or ineffectual. The world within the film has a nightmare-like quality”.
Residents of Johannesburg will identify.