Beyond the Wasteland

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I spent many of my student days at the University of Cape Town and subsequent years working in NGOs with a broad anti-apartheid orientation wondering about how much time, energy, talent and resources were being spent on the struggle against institutional racism. Things could be so different, and so quickly, I thought, if these talents and resources were utilised towards creating a society that sought to benefit all its people.

It is nearly 25 years since the dawn of a non-racial democracy in South Africa, with formal apartheid having been overcome, and yet I have a similar feeling now about the utter waste of much of the past two decades, and about how different our country could, and should be today, if only we had not squandered so much, or had not allowed so much to be squandered!

The various commissions of inquiry currently underway and the outstanding work of a small band of investigative journalists are revealing the scale of the plunder of economic resources by a venal, corrupt and shameless political leadership and their allies. For a long time, and at least since the so-called arms deal, we have been aware of the bad faith of the ANC and its leadership when it came to theft from the public purse and the corrupting of our democratic institutions to protect the politically connected thieves. Now we are being made aware of just how vast has been this looting – from banks, state-owned enterprises and even the tax collection agency being ransacked to cities and provinces being pillaged by shameless robbers disguised as “leaders of the people”. These are resources that could have been applied to changing the lives of the poor, but now the poor have to pay for this marauding through an increase in VAT and related increases, with their legitimate dreams for a better life being deferred even longer.

But the wreckage is manifested not only in material terms, but also in the sheer waste of talent and human resources. Highly competent people have been removed from strategic positions to make room for the facilitators of the rape of the public purse. Patriotic whistleblowers committed to their country and to doing their best for the institutions in which they have been employed have had their dignity stripped, their jobs, and in some cases their lives, taken away. Numerous individuals with high levels of expertise and experience have fled the public sector and even the country, having been alienated by the rise and consolidation of the robber class sprouting “transformation”, with this having meaning only for their personal bank accounts. Inevitably, public institutions and their capacity to deliver meaningful services to change the lives of ordinary people have been severely compromised as experts have been replaced by the pliant, and conscience by greedy stomachs.

And then there’s been the waste of time, exemplified mostly by the Zuma period in which the country moved backwards. In 1994, Rwanda was experiencing a genocide while South Africa was electing Nelson Mandela as its president. Yet today, Rwanda’s development indicators with regard to poverty eradication, literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, etc have moved north, whereas ours have – generally – remained stagnant or declined, so that if it weren’t for substantial numbers of people receiving state handouts, levels of poverty would be even worse today than they were in 1994. With its diverse economy, its human resources, its global networks and its infrastructure, our country should be – and could have been – a brilliant example of an African country that applies its wealth to the benefit of all its people – a nascent but strong democracy. Despite the controversies around its need and expense, the delivery and experience of the 2010 FIFA World Cup provided a sense of what the country could achieve, and could be, if the necessary political vision, leadership and will prevailed. Instead, our political leadership chose the low road, and we have been overtaken by countries with far less than we have, with years and years of wasted time that we will simply never recover.

As if these – wasted time, resources, opportunities and human expertise – are not sufficient monuments to the wasteland of the past two decades, we have lost – literally – millions of lives! Wasted through the arrogance and denialism of self-styled political demigods and their genuflecting disciples; hundreds of thousands of lives wasted by the bullets and knives of criminals; and then the potential of thousands more wasted prematurely by preventable diseases, a declining public sector health system and the suicides of those who see little future, who have little hope.

Such have been the lean times, the years and years of wastage, that we desperately look for silver linings, for signs that things are changing, and that the country will soon take the high road again. And yet, to undo the wreckage, we are spending even more time, even more resources, even more energy and expertise, marking time in the process as we allow the “rule of law” to take its course against those who did not give a damn about the law in the past, and who use it opportunistically in defence of their ill-gotten gain.

Quite frankly, I am done with the wastage, with the wreckage and with those who have caused it or stood by and watched it, and who now expect us to “thuma mina”. As citizens, if we have learned anything over the past two decades, it is that we live, we do and act best in relation to others, not because of, but despite government, despite those who rule.

Let us be done with the wastage. Let us not expend energy on the wastage, on those who defend and justify it and blame others for the wreckage. Let us find our spaces to live, to be and to act as good human beings towards other human beings, and lead more fulfilled, less frustrated lives.

Buro: MvH
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