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Make South Africa great again!

- Schalk Mouton

Column: We don’t just have the ability to turn South Africa around, we have a responsibility to do so.

Braai and heritage © Curiosity

It is a stunningly clear winter night. The stars in the sky shine brightly. Our cheeks glow red from the cold. Our breaths punctuate the night with stabs of frozen vapour as we exhale. We are a group of friends who have come together for one of the deepest of South African traditions – a braai.

We are braaiing on the coldest night of the year, not to celebrate a special occasion or to perform some kind of weird ritual. It is not even that we feel eccentric. No, we are braaiing because we have to. We have no power. The latest round of loadshedding has caught us off guard. Not even one of the most reliable inventions to come out of South Africa in the past 10 years, the Eskom se Push app, was able to predict the level of disintegration at the power producer this time.

At least the beer is ice cold. Not that we particularly feel the need to be drinking a beer on a freezing night. It is just that our water has been cut off for the past three days. Various excuses have been put forward by the municipality, relating to the power cuts, frozen rivers, Covid-induced company retrenchments and the previous government. None of them makes sense. Because of a lack of water and our latest round of panic shopping before the previous lockdown announcement, the only thing we have in surplus is beer. So, in our house, for the past three months, beer goes with everything – and, in fact is used for anything.

Inevitably, as it happens at every social gathering in South Africa these days, the conversation turns to emigration.

“So, what’s your escape plan?” asks Jason. The icicle hanging from his nose slowly starting to drip as he bends over the fire to turn the tjoppies.

It is not a question of “if”, it is a question of “when”, and “where to?”.

I inhale deeply. The start of my complicated answer. But before I even utter my first word, my wife shouts from the kitchen – where she is washing the salad leaves with a Windhoek draught – “Schalk, don’t be so negative!” The glare in her eyes blinding me more than the 1 000 lumen headlamp on her head.

I sigh. A deep, resigned sigh.

As the tjoppies sizzle, I fall into deep thought. My mind blocks out the conversation and the constant droning of the neighbours’ diesel generator. I realise that the problems discussed around our braai are ‘first world problems’. We are the fortunate ones. Yes, privileged. A lot of South Africans never have electricity to warm their houses or cook their food. And a lot of people don’t have running water in their houses. They, unlike us, don’t have many options to change their lives – or the responsibility to change the country.

South Africans, I fear, have to a large degree lost hope. We are in desperate need of a good news story. For the past decade, we’ve been hearing nothing but bad news. Crime, poverty, never-ending corruption. Politicians playing the blame game. Children drowning in pit toilets at schools, loadshedding and water cuts, failing state-owned enterprises, a lagging economy and inexcusably high youth unemployment, and inequality. Just the tip of the iceberg.

I am in the privileged position that when I am in a need of a therapy top-up, I can pick up the phone and call some of the brightest psychologists on the continent, at Wits. I grab my phone from the 12-year-old who is probably using it to hack into the State Security Agency’s database, and start to go through my contact list. My search takes a bit longer, for the numbers that I am looking for are listed under ‘P’, not under ‘S’, where I have been searching.

South Africa at the moment is a toxic environment. South Africans – not just me – are probably all suffering from some kind of condition that is spelt with a silent “B”, such as depression. Or even worse, some kind of post traumatic, or continuous traumatic stress. Each of us is paying the cost to live in this beautiful country. The core problem, it seems, is politics.

In the context of the country, a psychologist explains, politicians probably take the role of the parents, and we all know how disappointed we are when our parents get things wrong. To change our collective state of mind to what we felt in the mid-1990s when everybody was ready to work together, we need to change our whole environment.

Changing the country’s narrative is not as easy as attending a mass ‘family meeting’ or having another World Cup victory. To put a smile back on our faces at the next braai, there needs to be some actual changes to the country.

For the past 20 years, I have believed and advocated that every single problem in South Africa can be fixed. The schooling system, the hospitals, crime, lagging infrastructure projects such as the digitalisation of the broadcast spectrum, Kusile and Medupi power stations and the second phase of the Katze dam water scheme, can be all be fixed if there is a little bit of political will behind these projects. Covid showed us that. 

The moment our politicians actually ‘engaged their minds’ and decided the country must be shut down for three months, it happened without a problem. The military was mobilised, policy, regulations and even new laws were made and policed, and the public largely complied. Nothing the government has ever touched has been as effective as the Covid lockdowns. Not even the current vaccine roll-out.

Professor Alex van den Heever, from the School of Governance, believes that the whole Lego box that is South African politics should be upended, and carefully put back together.

“Patronage politics has to be effectively outlawed,” he says.

Patronage politics has destroyed democratic South Africa. Members of Parliament get put into parliament by being on a party list, and then work only to hold on to their jobs, not to serve the public. Corruption is so deeply rooted, that the ‘good’ politicians and public servants – and no, that is not an oxymoron – have to hide their work from their bosses – the ministers – in fear of having their projects captured. The money allocated to replace the pit toilet at the school where a six-year-old suffered the most awful death imaginable, never reached the school.

“By definition, you have to be corrupt to be in a position of power,” says Alex. My conversation with him makes me leave the braai immediately to pack my bag.

South Africans are becoming fatalistic because they feel that they can’t do anything to change their situation. Those that can do so emigrate. We not only lose their skills, we also lose loved ones.

But all is not lost, says Alex. “You can still go on to national television and criticise the president. You can’t do that in Russia or Turkey.”

To turn things around – and we still can – we need to know what the problem is and not keep quiet about it. We all need to work together to change the country for the better. The media, the judiciary, civil servants and, especially, you and me.

Rather than purchase a ticket to Canada, get involved in something that makes a positive difference, search for comfort in your close communities and, most importantly, speak up –especially those of us who are in positions to do so, or have a proximity to those in power. We live in a beautiful country with so much to offer. We owe it to ourselves – and more importantly – to those who really don’t have the ability to change things – as the dude with the kuif said – Make South Africa Great Again! 

  • Schalk Mouton is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 12th issue, themed: #Solutions. We explore #WitsForGood solutions to the structural, political and socioeconomic challenges that persist in South Africa, and we are encouraged by astounding ‘moonshot moments’ where Witsies are advancing science, health, engineering, technology and innovation.