Seeing local through a foreign lens

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They say that travelling helps to provide more perspective on one’s country, that it helps one to appreciate what one has, that one will realise that things are not as bad as one thought.

Maybe “they” would be right if one were travelling to Afghanistan. Or South Sudan. Or perhaps Venezuela.

But I am in Berlin. I’ve been part of a study tour with a group of Fellows of the Robert Bosch Academy. We got to meet senior politicians, a Constitutional Court judge, leading business people in some of Germany’s largest companies, academics and media people. The general impression conveyed by them is that Germany is in a state of instability, that the political order to which Germans have been accustomed for the past few decades is in the process of unravelling.

Far from the madding crowds that make up South Africa, I wish for the “instability” of Germany …!

Here, politicians fret about the potential chaos that the rising right-wing party will bring to federal and state parliaments. Have they even watched our “people’s parliament” of the past few years? The majority party riding rough shod over the legitimate concerns of the opposition, the childish heckling, the former presidential thief-in-chief laughing disparagingly at his accusers, the overweight politicians falling asleep, the embarrassing parliamentary openings with their forced points of order, and the subsequent disorder as elected parliamentarians in red are forcibly removed by men in white?

There is still respect for Germany’s political class, unlike for the rabble who pass for political leaders in South Africa, the opportunists who claim to serve “the people”, but who serve only themselves, their friends and family, their political party and their financial backers. The scale of the plunder of public resources by politicians at national, provincial and city levels, and by their appointed cronies in state-owned enterprises and in publicly funded institutions is absolutely mind-boggling. This, quite simply, would never happen – and would never be allowed to happen – in Germany.

Accountability, one of the very basic premises of democracy, is so absent in South Africa’s political life. The resignation of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister after it became clear that he had lied about the number of meetings he had had with the Guptas is a tiny swallow that will not herald a political spring, let alone a summer. So endemic is corruption within the South African political estate, so culpable are so many in its perpetration, that for all the commissions, enquiries, reports and recommendations for prosecution, it is unlikely that – except for a few “fall guys” and “fall girls” – the real culprits will be brought to book.

Like Germany’s Constitutional Court, the South African Constitutional Court has served its people well and has been the one official institution that the political class has been unable to corrupt in its favour. Other constitutional institutions designed to protect democracy and to defend the interests of ordinary citizens against the abuses of political power have been rendered useless by venal politicians, with the result that the National Prosecuting Authority, the Hawks, the Public Protector and various other oversight bodies stand limp, as hollow monuments to what could have been.

The names of anti-apartheid struggle heroes adorn buildings, airports and streets, but were these activists alive they would be ashamed and embarrassed at what is wrought in their name by those who claim their legacy.

Smiling wryly at how no German crosses the street before the green man gives the go-ahead (even when there is absolutely no traffic), I am reminded of the impunity with which taxis contravene regulations, the overshooting of stop streets by “law-abiding” suburbanites, the disregard of red traffic lights at night for fear of carjacking or having one’s windows shattered and bags snatched.

On average 57 South Africans are murdered each day. 57! And yet we are not a country at war. The pandemic of assaults and rape of women, the physical, emotional and psychological abuse of children, the cash-in-transit heists, the violence accompanying petty thefts – like frogs in boiling water, we have become accustomed to living in a highly traumatised, violent society with barbed wire, electric fences, armed response security services, beams and alarms. To walk the streets of Berlin late at night or ride the underground metro in the early morning unafraid, to see houses without burglar bars, let alone alarm systems, is to be made aware of the abnormality of South African society where the basic and most fundamental human right – to live – cannot be taken for granted.

Compared with the polarising and polarised media of the United States of America, the German media is generally respected by the political and business class as well as by civil society. In South Africa’s case, a small part of the independent, mostly online media has done – and continues to do – outstanding work in exposing the wrongdoing of those in business and politics, while large parts of the establishment media – including the public broadcaster – have been co-opted by the political class and their lackeys, with some wilfully and deliberately spreading false narratives that have underpinned state capture and cost whistle-blowers and honest public servants their jobs (and in some cases, their lives).

What the ruling party has done to South Africa is unforgiveable; the wreckage of the past 10–15 years will take a long while to overcome and the population will grow ever more restless.

It is a good time to travel … for as long as possible!

Buro: MvH
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