The Big Read: The race card is looking less like the ace of spades and more like a joker

The Big Read: The race card is looking less like the ace of spades and more like a joker

An ornithologist noted that starlings, or the Indian myna here, move “at the same time, in the same direction, and all at once”.

You could say exactly the same thing about much of the noise in South Africa that passes for analysis of our political economy. Originality and, heaven forbid, dissenting from the conventional wisdom, often more common than wise, is not encouraged.

But this is even truer of those charged with the destiny and national fortunes of South Africa. This is even more true in an election year, where the ANC faces stiff challenges in its previously impregnable fortresses in Gauteng and in the Eastern Cape.

I once compared much of the dialogue here to a form of political fundamentalism, to wit: “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell.”

In this dialogue of the deaf, real – perhaps even obvious – solutions are not heard or never even tabled, for fear of being roasted on the spit of political correctness.

But then most politicians are quite astute at changing the topic of conversation, or the terrain of battle, to one they feel less threatened by.

Much of this has to do with distracting attention from the real, objective and calamitous failures of governance.

And the best weapon of mass distraction in South Africa is to weaponise race and send it into battle heedless of either cause or consequence.

In the super-sized cabinet Jacob Zuma has constructed, “race” has become a sort of one-note orchestral theme struck by everyone, from the minister of sport to his colleague in minerals, as a convenient cure-all or blame-shifter for the array of problems confronting the country.

Fikile Mbalula, in full combat mode, recently announced that his contribution to promoting global competitiveness for sports bodies here was to ban four of them – rugby, netball, cricket and athletics – from hosting international tournaments. Their sin is lack of “transformation”, a euphemism we have made our own. So instead of the patient and less politically sexy work- outside of the headlines – of building up the supply side at school level, he bans or distorts the demand side at the top.

Then with a slight variation of this theme, the ethically challenged and objectively under-qualified SABC supremo, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, ducking an array of disciplinary and legal challenges, changed the subject. He decided to double down and more on the demand side by ruling that all SABC stations will be forced to play 90% local music content.

Since he either does not care or bother with the hundreds of millions of rands in taxpayer losses incurred by the organisation under his control, you can just picture where this saga will end.

Since there are more SIM cards than people in South Africa and many of them are smartphones capable of downloading any content, expect a big switch-off from the channels Motsoeneng controls.

There is nothing wrong with a “local is lekker” approach, provided it is undertaken with regard to listeners’ interests, and crucially, the choices they now command.

Command-style Stalinism might have worked once. But, alas for the control freaks in charge these days, it no longer really applies.

Last year Jacob Weisburg reported that between 1999 and 2009, annual revenues in the music industry declined from $14.6-billion to $6.3-billion, according to market analysis by Forrester Research. As he pinpointed, the music business was first attacked from below by illegal file sharing (on Napster) and then from above by Apple’s iTunes. With the latter, in the US and across the world, CDs were unbundled into 99c songs. The pattern of technological disruption continues apace with Spotify and Pandora.

Motseoeneng doubtless read this report before commanding back the waves of the music industry and his soon-to-be ex-listeners.

Attendance two weekends back at the Franschhoek Literary Festival provided little respite from all this background noise. A patina of political correctness pervaded the political discussions there, and the same notes were struck and the culture of complaint intensified.

But there were some truth-tellers as well. One of them – who carries his famous surname very lightly – was economist Moeletsi Mbeki.

He described the claim that “whites control the economy of South Africa” as untrue; but he also reminded his audience that it was a “distraction” from the pressing problems which 22 years of one-party rule have left unaddressed.

Just how much of a distraction this remains was borne out by the recent national poll conducted, appropriately, by the SA Institute of Race Relations. You won’t find its results in the background clamour on Twitter, for example.

But, asking its 2245 representative respondents to identify the most serious problem in the country, 46.5% cited unemployment, against 4.4% who identified racism.

Little wonder, then, that two weeks ago when Stats SA released the record-breaking unemployment figures, the highest since the ANC swept to power in 1994, the government had little to say or offer, but changed the subject to matters more congenial.

Another truth-teller at Franschhoek was that academic outlier Professor Jonathan Jansen, whose thoughtful contributions grace these pages.

He told Redi Tlhabi and a packed audience that in 10 years, if present circumstances do not change dramatically, there will not be one internationally rated university left in this country.

He said, in their stead, we will have a collection of “teacher-training colleges”. The reasons for this, he told us, were similar to the same forces which had felled once fine universities elsewhere in Africa: state control, ongoing unrest, funding deficiencies and “middle-class flight”.

He ominously warned that the “opportunity cost” of running a university was so high for those like him at the helm, that many vice-chancellors were deeply stressed.

The following Monday he announced his resignation from Free State University.

Those who are determined to double down, like the Indian myna, on doing the same thing in the same failed way will ignore these warning voices. Others, though, should listen and demand that those in charge of the fate of the nation do so as well.

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