In 1969, Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Fifty or so years later, Eskom added one more stage, six, to the national misery index through load-shedding, though our government remains stubbornly stuck in stages one (denial) and two (anger).
On Monday, we were treated to a full-court press of ANC ruminations and blame-gaming on our steep national decline.
Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni lashed out at business and the private sector. Ntshavheni — who fell upwards into the Presidency after spending her entire working life in government — said of the currency manipulation by Standard Chartered bank: “The performance of the rand and sometimes the performance of the economy has been manipulated by the private sector, which has no interest in the development of this country, which continues to engineer and do machinations to make sure the government collapses.”
In this bilious outpouring there was no acceptance of the government’s own role in its implosion. As Peter Bruce wrote in response, she herself played a starring role in the collapse of vital state companies, from the South African Post Office to Denel.
Still, one wonders what evil machinations and hidden agendas the manipulators from the private sector — trusted by three times more South Africans than the government to fix things — has in mind when it pitches in to help the state via work streams and Business for South Africa (B4SA), “an alliance of South African volunteers working with the South African government”. Sabotage? Treason? Perhaps the minister’s boss, “business-friendly” President Cyril Ramaphosa, will elaborate.
Someone who worked deep within the belly of the state beast at crippled Eskom, former spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha, put paid to government denialism on the cause of the electricity provider’s disaster.
He wrote: “The ANC is fully and entirely responsible for the crisis of electricity in South Africa for the past 17 years.”
And, of course, it is the state, not the business sector, that has enjoyed a monopoly on the ports (71,000 containers waiting to enter Durban), rail (decline of 22% in tonnage transported between 2017 and 2021) and policing (crime now shaves an estimated 10% off annual GDP).
Last Sunday, the day before Ntshavheni’s combination of stages one and two of grief plunged most thinking folk into stage four (depression), an extraordinary political earthquake erupted across the South Atlantic in Argentina.
Extreme outsider and libertarian Javier Milei detonated a political nuclear bomb under the establishment with his landslide victory in the race for the Argentinian presidency.
Forget about global solidarity in the south: he has indicated he will withdraw Argentina from Brics just after his left-wing predecessor agreed to join it, is far more pro-Israel than pro-Hamas, and intends to invite Donald Trump to his December inauguration.
Milei offers some lessons closer to home, leaving aside his wild hair, tantric sex lessons, cloned dogs and insults against Argentine-born Pope Francis, not to mention his running mate’s veneration of the military junta.
First, how did the most right-wing president ever elected in Argentina, famed home to economic disasters linked to the ruinous policies of left-wing Peronist nationalists, manage to win power?
There is no Spanish word that quite captures the South African term gatvol, but Milei — nicknamed El Loco, the crazy one — channelled the extreme anger of voters fed up with rising poverty rates, a debased currency, a failed economy, and a failing state.
When I left Argentina in late 2012, just 7% of Argentinians lived in poverty, today 40% do. The peso, even then in sharp decline, was worth about 90% more against the dollar than it is today. Inflation was about 24% then, versus 140% today. That’s what bad politics and worse government can do to a once hugely successful economy.
By the way, when I returned to South Africa from Argentina, the ZAR/US$ exchange rate was about R8 versus R18.00 today. About 53% of South Africans lived in poverty then as opposed to 55.3% today, despite a raft of government interventions. This is precisely the outcome to be expected when GDP declines (nominally) from $434.4bn then to $405.87bn today, despite the population surge. And in 2012 there was no load-shedding, while this year there have been 3,805 hours in the dark.
It’s an open question whether South Africa’s decline in the past decade and outrage by voters over the failure of the state at every level will next year cause a local earthquake, or at least a sizeable electoral tremor.
But one part of Argentina’s new political script is already in the works here.
President-elect Milei describes himself as a devoted “anarcho-capitalist” and believes that “a society functions much better without a state than with a state”.
Under the ANC, South Africans have undergone a real-time experiment of anarcho-capitalism already. The state barely functions — whether in keeping the lights on, teaching children to read for meaning, allowing exports and imports to leave or enter the country, interdicting crime, or enabling the posting of a humble letter.
According to minister Ntshavheni, though, it is the private sector that has collapsed government. In reality, she and her comrades have done a mighty fine job all on their own.
After more than a decade of happy engagement with Sunday Times readers, this is my final column. Thanks for reading, and I wish you all great success going forward. Cheers.