Enver Hoxha was the remorseless Communist dictator who held the Balkan country of Albania in his pitiless grip for just over 40 years from 1944 until his death in 1985.

Once, uncharacteristically, in his New Year message for 1967, he did offer his long-suffering country a burst of candour when he advised:

This year will be harder than last year. It will be, however, easier than next year.

Doubtless, had Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC governed South Africa during the Hoxha iron grip on power, our two countries would have enjoyed close relations, conveyed fraternal expressions of solidarity and rallied against the Western liberal order. Or perhaps not, since Hoxha – who converted his country into a hermit fiefdom isolated from the world, managed to sever ties with the West, Soviet Union and even China at various stages of his eccentric rule.

But one aspect of Albanian authoritarianism and one-party hegemony does percolate the morning brew here, though absent Hoxha’s one line of honesty. This was encapsulated by Albania’s most famous novelist, Ismail Kadare, who wrote of ‘the obligatory optimism of socialist society.’

Every government statement and each ANC propaganda byte is suffused with “obligatory optimism”. Entirely divorced from any acknowledgement that “this year will be harder than last year… easier than next year”.

Take, for example, the usual word salad mixed into Ramaphosa’s weekly newsletter. This week’s offering contained such garnish as his shoutout on the matriculation pass rate:

The matric results released last week showed an 82.9% pass rate…this is the highest pass rate introduced since the [National Senior Certificate was introduced in 2008, and is a stellar achievement.

Of course, not starring in that statement were a slew of other, far grimmer statistics: 40% of the pupils who entered school here in Grade 1 had dropped out before matriculating. This led Business Day to editorialise entirely correctly that “letting children who are battling academically quit school is a surefire way to boost the pass rate, but it does a deep disservice to these children and society at large”.

Mind you, “doing deep disservice” to both children, adults, and the universe of citizens, here is the hallmark of Ramaphosa’s government.

If instead of – in the great Soviet tradition – quoting dodgy statistics of worthless value – the president properly interrogated the realities of the situations he trumpets as successes, he would come to a different, starker and far more sobering conclusion. Or series of them.

He might pause for a second and think why, according to the international benchmark survey, in 2021 only one in five fourth-grade children “could read for meaning” – meaning, in other words, more than 80% of pupils couldn’t understand the words they were parroting.

Perhaps he might think there was something amiss in his trade union ally, Sadtu, the all powerful teachers’ union preventing teachers being tested for competency, or dismissed for incompetency. But then again, the union has just endorsed Ramaphosa’s party for the looming election.

Then again, if the statistics embarrass you, simply change the measuring instrument. Precisely what happens when the matriculation pass rate is adjusted downward to just 30%, meaning that you get a certificate, perhaps not worth the paper it is printed on by failing 70% of the subject test, etc.

Growing youth unemployment

This is one obvious reason why we do enjoy world leadership in the one area always absent from government’s ‘obligatory optimism’: youth unemployment. Here, we do genuinely almost top global rankings.

In Global Economy’s 2022 survey of 176 countries, South Africa came in second – after war-torn Djibouti with a 51.52% youth unemployment ranking, just nudging another conflict-ravaged country, Libya, which came in third at 51.47%.

Not too much obligatory optimism here, though in the absence of a job, our youth can look forward to one or another paltry government grant of around R350.00 per month, another (taxpayer-funded) “achievement” much heralded by Ramaphosa.

The one incontestable achievement of democratic South Africa, for which indeed the ANC as a governing party since 1994 can take a bow, has been to end the racial conflict and civil war atmosphere (and reality) of pre-1994.

Unlike Djibouti and Libya, for example, we resolved our deep sectarian conflict by broadly peaceful means and measures. But government, in a desperate attempt to reclaim some moral standing and divert attention from multiple domestic disasters and change the headlines to its advantage, seems determined to import from abroad a searing conflict in the Middle East regardless of what impact it has on local circumstances and relationships.

On the one hand, South Africa sent a team to Davos last week to offer the weasel phrase that “SA is open for business”. Never mind collapsed ports, throttled railways and daily electricity blackouts, unmet mining exploration licences, and unprocessed skilled visa applications.

We can always parade our credentials on the global stage at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, even if we attract scant attention and few investment dollars at the World Economic Forum.

One of the bibles for foreign investors and market analysts is the influential weekly magazine, The Economist. In the same week, as we were attempting to convince global business leaders of our investor attractiveness, it opined:

South Africa’s claim that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians… cheapens the term… With its case, South Africa is making a mockery of the court. Genocide requires that Israel is killing people in Gaza simply for being Palestinian. In fact, it is targeting Hamas fighters in response to a deadly attack on its territory. Some far-right Israeli politicians have used hateful language, but they are not articulating government policy. South Africa has called on the ICJ to impose a unilateral ceasefire on Israel, which would leave it unable to defend itself against Hamas, a terrorist group whose founding charter calls for the killing of the Jews.

Of course, Dirco Director-General Zane Dangor, when directly asked, declined to label Hamas “a terrorist group”. But one economic blowback from our ICJ performance has direct consequences and suggests precisely the following ill wind created by loose language and erratic posturing. And economic consequences.

This week, United Ulama Council of South Africa, the local umbrella body of major Muslim theological formations in South Africa and which claims “the confidence and support of the Muslim populace in South Africa, according to its website, issued a statement. It called for “a consumer boycott of Zionist-linked products as part of a strategy of solidarity with the people of Palestine”.

According to the council, any company in South Africa that supports “the Zionist project” should be boycotted “as a potent weapon to demand they cease backing genocidal policies”.

Four companies – Clover Dairies, Cape Union Mart, Dischem and Teva – are singled out. And doubtless, any other “Zionist” or presumably Jewish entity which does not bend at the knee before the council’s demands will soon enough join the list.

I have no idea whether the boycott will succeed, and like Voltaire on his deathbed, defend the right of free speech for one and all. However, it is worth pausing, for example, to consider the case of Clover which has an Israeli shareholder (Israel’s Central Bottling Company).

Floodgates opened 

In 2019, its R4.8-billion offer was headlined as “giving a boost to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s effort to lure foreign investment to the country” (by Bloomberg on 4 February 2019).

Given the total silence by government, the Presidency and the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition on this issue, any foreign investor now, in addition to all other hurdles will have to contend with whether it too might meet the disfavour of the United Ulama Council and a slew of other NGO’s dedicated to sniffing out, denouncing and demonising all suspect “Zionist project” supporters.

This doubtless will include a brace of international hedge funds, private equity players and a belt of FTSE 100 and S&P 500 and Nasdaq companies. Having deselected the Protea Under-19 cricket captain and targeted four major retail entities (who provide employment and opportunities and consumer goods to thousands), this is open season on the disfavoured. And the ICJ case, whatever its outcome, is the perfect cover and legitimisation for this and comes with the stamp and the scarf of “Brand South Africa”.

Ramaphosa and his government, having opened the floodgates on all this and timorous to push back on what amounts to economic sabotage against the country, will, as usual, equivocate and temporise. Just as foreign investment slows to a trickle.

But one outcome for this country from our “fifteen minutes of fame” on the global stage recently will be vindication of Hoxha’s New Year message from over 50 years back: “This year will be harder than last year.”