Yes, but what can we do?
It’s a question I’m seeing everywhere as the oxygen is sucked from our national life.
We’re feeling desperate. Almost desperate enough to do something.
I’m reading angry Facebook posts about tax boycotts and marches and petitions to the United Nations. Intelligent people are talking about emigration. Less intelligent people are Tweeting about shooting students and assassinating politicians.
Almost all of it is unwise or downright suicidal. But what do we do? Is it enough simply to vote in 2019, and, if the results are ruled free and fair, to suck it up for another five years?
This option is becoming increasingly unpopular. There is a feeling in South Africa that we are running out of time and that the usual rules and systems of democracy might need to be put aside to save the country.
That, of course, is exactly what dictators say in their first broadcast to the nation. Which is why it might be important for all of us to step back; to make a conscious decision to resist this collective anxiety and to try to find a space of relative calm and perspective. Perhaps the answer to “What can we do?” is simply to stay alert, and to try to remember some of the following.
1. Things are moving. The 24-hour news cycle and a lack of historical perspective have made us dangerously impatient with the pace of the democratic process. To the Twitter generation a week is an age. It feels as if the current cabal has been in power forever. But it hasn’t, and whatever is happening is happening fairly fast.
2. We don’t have a government, we have looters. Once you understand this, most headlines will make a lot more sense and your gloom will feel slightly more focused.
3. Hyperbole is a national sport. When you hear that a certain neighbourhood or campus has “turned into a war zone” because armed police are present and there are some bricks in the road, take a look at a picture of Aleppo. South Africa is a violent, angry country, but we’re not at war and it helps nobody to believe that we are.
4. The bar has been lowered so far that ground zero feels like progress. In our country it is now considered an act of almost Scandinavian good governance for a mayor to drive to work in a car worth less than R1-million. This is not a rational response and we need to be wary of it. Eventually the ANC is going to charge someone with corruption or appoint a qualified person into a senior job, and, because our expectations have been lowered so execrably far, it will seem that accountability Nirvana has arrived. Don’t fall for it.
5. The EFF has told us what it is: we should try to believe it. The Fighters want a nationwide shutdown in support of the students and to remove Jacob Zuma. This makes perfect sense, because, as any surgeon will tell you, the best way to save a patient on the operating table is to switch off the machines and to walk out. (Also, I don’t want to rain on any goose-stepping parades but the last time a militaristic party representing less than 10% of South Africans brought the country to a grinding halt, we called it the Rubicon Speech and agreed it probably wasn’t a great idea.)
6. Experts create clarity. Read Achille Mbembe on Facebook and Pierre de Vos on his blog. Likewise, the AmaBhungane are very good at what they do. For the rest, don’t automatically believe anyone who makes a living from expressing an opinion, and that includes me. Also don’t assume an academic title means anything. (Speaking of which, if there’s anyone at the University of Zululand reading this, I’m still waiting for my PhD in Astrophysics to arrive in the mail like you promised. Did you not get my EFT or what?)
7. The looters want us to call each other names. The more cross-eyed we get calling each other “stupid” or fighting small battles of ego and identity, the less clearly we can see the gangsters for what they are and the more cash they can stuff into their pockets.
Finally: have a plan for what comes next. The looters are either going to win or they’re going to be severely injured in 2019 and start scattering. If they win, you’ll need a passport and liquid assets. If they lose more ground, and opposition parties step into the vacuum, stay intelligent. Everyone is corruptible and if you don’t think 20 years in power would turn the DA or the EFF into the current ANC, then you’re a politician’s wet dream.
So what can we do? Read. Think. Prepare. It doesn’t feel like a solution. But it’s a start.