Cascading corruption, sky-high unemployment, and state incompetence. This daily diet of misery is now so mundane and common that what once induced shock and outrage in us is shrugged off. We have, as South Africans, learnt to normalise the abnormal.
Last Sunday, readers were treated to the front-page headline of “Spy boss ‘took R112m’ ” — the saga of how former director-general of state security Sonto-Gladys Kudjoe is being investigated for the alleged theft or abuse of “wads of cash for phantom operations”.
There was no follow-up and the public shrugged it off, not because there is no horror at this race to the bottom, but simply because the next day eclipses the day before in reports of brazenness, greed and the evidence of the hollowed-out state.
Midweek, the presidency, which promised to move us up the league tables that matter in the world, discovered that Bloomberg, the financial news service, had promoted us to No 1: “SA’s unemployment rate surged to the highest on a global list of 82 countries.”
Then, truly starring in a fantasy world of her own creation, social development minister Lindiwe Zulu published a green paper on social security, offering a massive tax hike on wage earners without bothering to get the input of the Treasury and ignoring four years of discussions at the Nedlac business and labour council on the topic.
Given this welter of malfeasance, grim-reaper statistics and rogue ministers, long forgotten is Cyril Ramaphosa’s pledge on July 16 to take decisive action against the ringleaders of the looting frenzy in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Yet here we are six weeks later and where are the arrests and charges against the dirty dozen top conspirators who in the president’s own view placed the “constitutional order of the country under threat”?
He promised then that “no stone would be left unturned to hold the culprits to legal account”.
“Sergeant at the Bar”, writing in News24 this week, noted archly that “a few pebbles may have been turned but not one stone disturbed”.
On Wednesday evening, in a virtual event for the revived Franschhoek Literary Festival, I had the opportunity to interrogate acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson on his new book Doom: the Politics of Catastrophe. This rollicking and profound read covers a catalogue of disasters, how they occur and why we keep failing to interdict them.
Ferguson says SA should count itself lucky that it features directly in the book only with reference to the meteor that crashed into Vredefort in the Free State millions of years ago. But, he added, even though it is easy to blame Jacob Zuma for the miseries and challenges currently afflicting us, fixating on outsize political personalities misses the wider point.
In Ferguson’s view, political leaders are “hubs” within complex networks of information; when these hubs communicate efficiently with each other, “the results are helpful”. “But when communication breaks down or information is less than accurate, a cascade of failures ensue that makes disasters far worse.”
That is probably the best one-paragraph explanation for the litany of failures and missteps that accounts for last month’s looting and the inability of the state to either anticipate or interdict it.
And as for Ramaphosa, branded by many as either weak or clueless about what is going on in his own fiefdom? Here, too, Doom provides a central insight.
The extent of a leader’s power, Ferguson observes, is dependent on how effectively the edicts they issue are “transmitted down to the lowest functionary”. Or indeed to ministerial colleagues. If the leader is well connected to all the spokes in the hub he commands, “so that they can be informed as well as command”, it’s a recipe for effective and consequential leadership.
Then there is the opposite situation, which Doom addresses. “To be isolated within the structure of power is to be doomed to impotence no matter how grand one’s title.”
And that in a snapshot is the grim picture of the Ramaphosa presidency right now. It conjures up economic growth and job creation, only to find that ministers have other ideas, from massive tax hikes to nixing green energy transitions. It promises to swiftly arrest those who led an insurrection in mid-July only to find the criminal dock remains empty at the end of August.
There is, though, another news item that headlines how this corrosion of faith in the broken system and feebleness of follow-through plays out.
This week, research network Afrobarometer released its survey. It found that the public’s trust in elected representatives and state institutions in SA “has reached its lowest level in history”. And respondents apparently have a “plague on all their houses” attitude.
The government and the opposition both score shockingly in the trust stakes: 27% and 24%, respectively. Fewer than two in five South Africans trust the president either “somewhat” or “a lot”.
And the survey was conducted before the looting and riots last month. Little wonder so many parties, including the president’s, are desperate to postpone the October local government elections.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
Featured in The Sunday Times