The death of acclaimed film critic Barry Ronge in early July was a jarring reminder to me of how he held our English 1 class at Wits University spellbound with his wit and articulacy 42 years ago. Ronge’s lecture topic back then was “the theatre of the absurd” — at the time very voguish with its mordant takes on the meaninglessness and absurdity of the human condition.
July 2022 in SA offers some updated contenders to add to this dramatic genre. President Cyril Ramaphosa could write and star in new scenes of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party with its endless pauses and silences. He cannot meet deadlines, either for the public protector’s probe into his Phala Phala burglary, nor for his much-touted — not quite sighted and of doubtful use — energy emergency plan. His social compact is missing in action, and his approach to governance appears to be that of a semi-interested bystander, punctuated by silence on both his criminal peril and keeping the lights on. Behind hidden hand and with shuffled feet we are led.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was noteworthy for the fact that the much spoken part of central character Godot never actually arrives. Something akin to the endless plans, announcements and wish lists of our ailing and creaking government, which cannot deliver on any of its mandates and whose grand schemes are simply the stuff of “fairy-tale economics”, to borrow Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak’s put-down of his rival, Liz Truss.
Perhaps prime contender for the absurdist award for illogical incomprehensibility is mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe. As Eskom hurtles us into the dark ages, his solution to the energy crisis, for which he bears both prime responsibility and a refusal to admit culpability, is to birth another Eskom. You cannot make this stuff up, absurd as it is.
Ramaphosa, who like a cushion retains the impress of the last person to sit upon him, initially dubbed the idea splendid before recanting on it a few days later. But who knows what he really thinks? Or, indeed, if he engages in deep thinking on any vital topic.
The Tory leadership contest, less violent and corrupt and more literate than the local jostles for power, and absent the presence of a self-proclaimed Taliban slate, did offer sharp insight from across the seas. Writing in the Financial Times at the weekend, Janan Ganesh offered what he termed “the vibes theory of politics”.
Thus Sunak, who is a right-wing Brexiteer, appears to be the opposite. “Sunak’s views are right-wing, but what you might call his effect is liberal.” In other words, a megarich former banker who is more at ease in Davos than in the Red Wall areas of gritty Northern England, appears to be the candidate of the metropolitan elite even if his views and ideology are far removed from the liberal consensus.
As Ganesh explains it, we identify with people who dress and speak like us and offer us emollient reassurances, even if the political and economic consequences of their offering are far removed from our own. “It is a matter of vibes and tribes. At a base atavistic level, these are my people,” he writes, “they dress and act like the average of my 10 best friends. If there are some awkward policies in the way, I will reinterpret them.”
Perhaps this explains SA business’s enchantment with Ramaphosa, fading though it might be. The president “dresses and speaks like us” far more than, say, Jacob Zuma, even if the political and ideological differences between them are vanishingly small. And between his Bosasa missteps and the unexplained dollars in his Phala Phala sofa, the corruption difference is also reducing.
Other than the fact that he bestrode multiple boards of private sector companies and offered a vague, never articulated nor implemented, agenda for reform, where precisely is the evidence that Ramaphosa is “business friendly”?
Adrian Gore, who leads the largest medical aid and insurance company in SA, adds lustre to Ramaphosa’s investment conferences. But when the president announced in 2018 that the mooted National Health Insurance (NHI) “is coming whether you like it or not”, a Pinteresque silence or feigned noises of approval were offered by those who understand only too well the catastrophic implementation costs of this hare-brained scheme.
It is simply absurd for a country that has a shortage (according to Life Heathcare, the second largest hospital group in SA) of 20,000 nurses and 13,000 doctors to plough ahead with NHI. But then, matching supply to demand — basic economics — is not a government strength. Incidentally, nurses are also absent from SA’s critical skills list.
Then there was the announcement last week from the last bastion of independence and integrity in the state, the Reserve Bank, that interest rates will increase by a margin not seen in two decades. But the looming inflation peril is precisely because so little of the so-called reform agenda has been implemented, and because extortionate above-inflation wage increases are squeezed out of the state by hostage-takers such as Eskom wildcat strikers and saboteurs.
Actually, it is in the Eskom debacle of shuttered power stations and stage six load-shedding that has driven the economy off the cliff and caused a collective nervous breakdown in the country, that we see the full effects of the Taliban politics.
Fundamentalism, whether in religion or politics, leads to extreme outcomes, and the only arrow left in the ANC quiver is the salience of race. Thus, as the Sunday Times revealed, there can be no sensible discussion on the dire skills shortage at the crippled state electricity provider without detonating the tripwire of race.
About the only policy implemented in full, despite all other constraints and hazards and across all government departments, is employment equity. Back in February 2019, according to media reports at the time, Eskom was instructed to remove 1,308 whites, including 336 engineers, from its books by March 2020 to meet blunt-instrument equity targets. To sacrifice scarce skills on the altar of preordained racial targets constitutes a form of actual insanity. But according to the Sunday Times Eskom is still enthralled to this ideology, heedless of the current disaster.
Once again there is silence from the top on this hazard. Perhaps the presidency is preoccupied with its own threat assessments, not of the country’s condition but of its own possible immolation.
Former president Thabo Mbeki garnered great attention last week with his full-on assault on the listing presidency of the incumbent, and his prediction that SA is on course to “explode” with a local version of the Arab Spring.
Actually, Mbeki’s younger brother, Moeletsi, got there first, suggesting some years ago that the bomb would “explode in 2020 give or take a couple of years”. Well, here we are now.
And since Mbeki-the-younger is far less attached to the ANC than his older brother, he wrote: “ANC leaders are like a group of children playing with a hand grenade. One day one of them will figure out how to pull out the pin and everyone will be killed.”
As bleak as a play by Samuel Beckett.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.