For some years much of South African society has voiced or has appeared to be consumed by hopelessness and demoralisation. There is a sense that what was gained in achieving democracy in 1990-1994 has been gutted by corruption, State Capture, destruction of state enterprises and other key institutions and infrastructure. A range of other ills spread over almost all institutions impact, albeit unevenly, seriously on all sections of society.
Demoralisation extends beyond looking at what no longer exists and what has not realised its promise. What makes the pessimism more pervasive and has some validity is that there is a sense that what has been broken cannot easily be repaired. Moreover, there is little confidence that those who are charged with repairing it are likely to do so. Nor is there a viable plan or path that has a chance of improving the prospects, whatever the current leadership may proclaim.
In many ways that sense of hopelessness, the sense that things will not get better and will get worse, that sense of despair is borne out by statistics, whether in the fate of the falling rand, for the economy as a whole, healthcare, crime, education and collapse of state institutions and audits of finances at every level of government.
Statistics that we read in our media confirm this. That we may soon be in a technical recession (meaning two successive quarters with negative growth), that business confidence has dropped, that GDP in the fourth quarter of 2022 declined, that unemployment continues to rise, that crime is rife - it seems in almost every city, town and village - all confirms that there may be good reasons to lapse into pessimism or despair.
State efforts to combat crime appear to have gained little ground and crime syndicates and gangsterism are now a phenomenon found everywhere in South Africa - a well-organised phenomenon, fuelled by arms, often obtained through police, where efforts to combat arms smuggling have been reversed.
Corruption on the scale of State Capture is still present in a number of provinces.
This is notably so in Mpumalanga, which was not always quoted in this regard, even though many people pointed fingers at the former Deputy President and former Premier of Mpumalanga, David Mabuza. But independent of Mabuza, we now read that crime syndicates are everywhere in Mpumalanga in relation to Eskom and suppliers of Eskom, in the Kruger National Park and a range of theatres of crime in just one province. But the same could be said of Gauteng, North West, Free State and other provinces.
And some of this criminality in Mpumalanga is a key factor in preventing the remedying of the problems of Eskom and of energy supply in South Africa as a whole.
No alternative in place
Obviously, the weaknesses of the political system and the absence of credible leadership in office or alternatives offered by opposition parties are at the centre of the sense of despair. There is a widespread belief that the current political leadership is without a plan, without a leadership that can inspire people with trust and hope.
This apprehensiveness is worsened by the growing evidence that there is no alternative that offers more. The various opposition parties in the formal political arena, have shown themselves to be as inept and often as corrupt as the ANC has been.
Just in the last week, we've had the situation where the DA was apparently “destined” to secure the office of mayor in Tshwane but was then defeated by a COPE candidate supported by the ANC and EFF. But this was short-lived when he was found to be ineligible for office because he was an unrehabilitated insolvent. He then challenged this with a certificate that he claimed, showed that he had been rehabilitated.
That was taken to court and it was found that the certificate was invalid. It was a very amateur “certificate”, not even capturing the name of the court correctly, without the level of sophistication of some ANC scams. So, what we see from alternatives to the ANC is that they are capable of behaving in just as dishonourable and dishonest a manner as we have come to expect from the ANC in recent times.
Impact on future generations
Regrettably much of the dysfunctionality that is reported on is impacting on future generations. We have a situation where, even if we were to give up on the present generation of leaders as a source of a remedy for the future, the conditions of living of the youth is now in crisis with very high unemployment among young people. Their existence is usually in run-down townships with high criminality. There is also high criminality in the schools with continued acts of violence, and often murders on or next to school grounds.
But also, the negligence of the current leadership of the ANC in basic education is repeatedly confirmed with tragedies like pit toilet deaths, which are not being remedied and eradicated as courts have demanded. This is lawlessness, but it plays with the future of young kids, young children of four years of age, who drown in faeces. This happens in different parts of South Africa, notably in the Eastern Cape, and the responsible minister, Angie Motshekga, continues to be reappointed.
If the current leadership plays havoc with their own future that is one thing. But that they visit this criminality, negligence and dereliction of duty, not only on the youth, but on the young toddlers of today, is a special type of criminality.
Any path out of this critical situation?
Having said that, it is not easy to come up with a solution or a suggestion as to a path out of the present impasse. I repeatedly turn to the need for something new to be built outside of the existing official ruling party and official opposition parties.
This need not necessarily be purely extra parliamentary but needs to have an important core component of what Archbishop Makgoba calls a new struggle, a new struggle to recover what we gained in 1994 and make it work. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2023-01-07-the-new-struggle-an-alliance-of-high-calibre-leaders-is-needed-to-craft-a-better-future-for-sa/).
It is impossible to provide a blueprint for how this is to be done. All that can be said is that we need to find a way of listening to one another. We need a politics that is not - on the part of alternatives to the ANC - also consumed by seeking positions of leadership as a central drive.
Listening to a range of players
We need to find a way of listening to a range of players who can be part of a fresh start. There must be a truly new dispensation, and also an “alternative new alternative” to what exists and it must be built patiently but determinedly with clear and strong foundations. This must rely on hearing one another and learning from the wisdom and experiences of others in South Africa, from all strata, generations and workplaces or those who are unemployed.
Hope is not simply optimism, but is based on creating conditions that humans develop to make hope for something better possible.
Dominican priest Herbert McCabe is quoted by Terry Eagleton:
“We are not optimists; we do not present a lovely vision of the world which everyone is expected to fall in love with. We simply have, wherever we are, some small local task to do, on the side of justice, for the poor”. (Quoted Terry Eagleton, Hope without Optimism. 2015 p. vi).
Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities of the ANC,SACP and UDF. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.