Living in the bubble

It will be with a heavy heart that I get on board the BA flight to London on Friday evening. I’ve really enjoyed being back here in South Africa. Sort of.

We came here in mid-October and Di left for her medical consultation in London a couple of weeks ago.

The update on that is that she is now waiting for a consultation which ought to immediately lead to radio therapy for her acoustic neuroma, rather than surgery. She is also about to start seeing a physiotherapist, who specialises in balance-related problems. Hopefully soon, she will be on the mend. Di that is. I’m sure the physio is fine already.

So, I’ve had the best part of three weeks living back in the bubble that pretty much everyone I know in South Africa says we live in. It’s true. Inside is largely secure, protected, insulated from the daily horrors of rape, murder and mayhem that beset the broken South Africa outside.

We live in quiet ocean-side villages, towns or gated communities and travel from home to work to shops to restaurant by car and in the main, send our children to private schools. Those living beyond the bubble have to deal with poverty, massive unemployment, township (shack) housing and non-existent, or poorly run transport facilities. The other option is to use one of our so-called minibus taxis; all too often overloaded, badly maintained, uninsured and quite likely piloted by a drunk driver. There’s lots of lip service, but little meaningful policing of these kamikazes.

Awful prospect that may be, but it’s that or walk.

The press bays about our desperately unequal society and I agree.

What I don’t agree with is that it is the fault of anyone who isn’t a black African, in some kind of “I’m OK, you I don’t care about” attitude.

Let me put that in context.

Like most South African families and in the forty-odd years we’ve both been here, we have worked, paid our taxes and supported various initiatives to assist the mass of the population. I’ve employed countless people, volunteered and worked for a number of aid organisations, including the world famous Outward Bound. Di funded one of Laura’s school chums through senior school and made a telling contribution to her university education. We might have done more, but that would then have been at the cost of our own family.

In 1994, when the ANC was voted into government, Nelson Mandela and his comrades inherited a state that worked. And before you tell me that it was uneven and legislated against the bulk of the population, I agree.

However, we had water. It was piped everywhere for everyone and cheap. Today, the so-called Minister of Water Affairs has announced a R900 billion (£40bn) plan to upgrade our water infrastructure. Why? Because the one we have now has been ignored and allowed to deteriorate to the point where many small towns have no water, sewage in their rivers and in many cases, no infrastructure left, as it is either broken beyond repair, or has been stolen and sold for scrap.

Of course, the Ministers from 1994 until now have all been ANC appointees, most believed to have stolen/misappropriated the bulk of the funding allocated to keep the filters, pipes and pumps maintained.

My recent experience aside, our railway system is a shambles. Copper cable theft, signalling system failure and zero maintenance mean commuter trains never run on time; in Cape Town a 30-45 minute delay in in- and outbound trains is the daily norm. Often several hour delays are experienced.

That makes those least able to afford and avoid the inconvenience late for work and it is only a short time before tardiness leads to non-payment for unworked hours and eventually, dismissal. It’s not the employee’s fault, but who cares?

In 1994, we had electricity. So much that we were busy selling it to governments as far north as Ghana. Well, that didn’t last. By the late ‘90s, government was being told by those that know that we needed new generating capacity. The advice was ignored, because the Mbeki administration didn’t want to fund that kind of capex.

We eventually ran out of capacity and despite belatedly spending billions on building two giant coal-fired stations, have experienced load shedding and complete black outs for the last several years. Both new stations are years and years behind schedule and both currently running at well over 100% cost overruns. Poor workmanship, management failure and corruption are the culprits and still no-one seems to know how to get the electricity flowing.

As I finished editing this piece, a link to an article in this morning’s Sowetan newspaper arrived. I feel as though the author Ebrahim Harvey was watching over my shoulder.

Back to my own rant.

I mentioned the idea of “keep ‘em poor, keep ‘em stupid” in a recent post and it may never be more apposite than in South Africa’s state education system, which has lumbered from un-inclusive and barely acceptable (but working) in 1994, to a non-functioning process which is hallmarked (for me at least) by the idiotic idea of Outcomes Based Education, which required modern schools, skilled teachers and access to computers – none of which the country had then and still doesn’t possess today. It took more than a decade to dump this ludicrous idea and still we have ideals that simply can’t be met. When tens of thousands of school leavers can’t even read and write, you have to know the problem is writ large.

Many rural classes are held under nearby trees as there are no buildings. A couple of years ago, one youngster drowned having fallen into a long drop (pit latrine). The government’s response was to allocate several hundred million Rand to building toilets for our school children. Because there is no oversight or morality, every single cent of those millions have gone AWOL and not a single toilet has been built. Are the culprits in jail? You need ask?

In our state schools we have a so-called Democratic Teachers Union wagging the dog and controlling what goes on. Up to 40% of its members are believed to be absent, drunk or making sexual advances to their pupils on a daily basis. Try and fix it and the teaching (such as it is) stops completely.

One of the government’s sops to itself has been to reduce the pass mark for almost anything, including a university-entrace-necessary matric pass to 30%. Now, children who can barely scribble their names are lauded for the great achievement(s) of the education system. They get a matric pass and head for further education. Our once proud universities are a laughing stock and good luck to you going for a job interview in London, Paris or New York, brandishing your Wits, or UCT degree. It’s just about as valueless as our currency.

The Post Office collapsed a couple of years ago, with something like 80 million undelivered letters/parcels to deal with. It’s a different 80 million today, but the backlog still remains.

But, if you stay in South Africa and live in your bubble, everything is OK. You might have to boil your drinking water and need a little generator in the garage, but that’s OK. Woolies has lots of very expensive food for sale and we’ve got little else to spend our salaries on, as the Rand is so weak that overseas must remain just that for now.

Looking at the mess, one thing is clear; the wooly-headed notion of cadre deployment – communism is alive and well down here – has proven to be a complete failure. Before you ask, cadre deployment is the placing of loyal ANC people (cadres) in jobs for which they have no aptitude, qualifications, interest or motivation, beyond a month-end salary cheque. Uneducated, unskilled and uninterested, these loyal political hacks are there to ensure things go the way the ANC wants. They don’t of course, as they do no work at all, or worse, interfere and then really break things.

Similarly, the Black Empowerment programme was intended to quickly move black folk into partnership and management jobs across the entire spectrum of South Africa’s commerce and industry. That hasn’t worked either.

So, twenty five years after the celebrations of 1994, the Stalinists and central controllers have won the day. Our economy is becalmed and slipping further into complete melt-down by the moment. What money was in the fiscus has been stolen by generations of corrupt politicians, most recently Jacob Zuma and his coterie of helpful Indian shoemakers, who are believed to have siphoned more than R1 trillion out of the economy between them.

They’re all in jail now?

Not one.

Still, we’re in our bubble. As secure as money can make us.

So is it to be civil war or an African Spring? If only the nation could stop the deliberately uneducated and starving from continuing to vote for the so-called party of liberation, South Africa might stand a chance. No matter how much I love being here, I’m not holding my breath.

3 replies
  1. Philippe Berend
    Philippe Berend says:

    Dear Paul,

    I am afraid your portrayal of SA’s demise is still too kind. I knew a country that was technologically advanced, with the world’s first heart transplant to its credit, or fuel-from-coal, or nuclear technology. Not to mention mining prowess. And if apartheid-time South Africa surrounded itself with a great wall, it was not to keep downtrodden black people from leaving this hell-on-earth, it was to keep foreigners from getting into this place where they could earn an unequal, unfair living, that was still much better than anywhere else in Southern Africa.
    And today, how about the highest AIDS rate in the world? And murder? And rape? It is so sad, and, as usual, it is the poorest who suffer the most. And for what, save the fortunes of the corrupt and the opportunists?
    This not to say that they should go back to apartheid and white rule, of course. That ship has sailed, and most appropriately so. But it just shows that, when you think a situation is so bad it is intolerable, as apartheid was, one should not forget it can also, sometimes, get even much worse. Just ask Libyans who suffered under Khadafi and Irakis under Saddam. Are they better off? In the case of SA, clearly not.
    And don’t get me started on the theory that “such is the cost of freedom”. It is the cost of dogmatism, cronyism, corruption, and incompetence.
    My heart bleeds for South Africans as I write this.


    Hi Paul
    I agree with what you have written but……. the bubble has been there since I arrived in 1969! I landed into a bubble, blown up specially for me as I was white and a female aka white baby producing person, and everything was structured to make me happy, keep me quiet and not see the real South Africa.
    Black people are angry, they are angry because we do not acknowledge we stuffed up a whole generation or two, took their dreams and flushed them down the pit latrine. That anger will not subside if we don’t acknowledge their pain, their children’s pain (who are now the adults). They were fucked over by colonialism and apartheid of which we supported the system. It doesnt matter if we treated ”the other groups humanely.” We supported the system by working and being here. I am guilty of this too, I worked, lived well, far higher than I would have in the UK, and now still live well on my earnings gained under apartheid.
    So we need to acknowledge the pain and suffering we inflicted on the ‘other’ people who had no rights in their own and my adopted beautiful country.
    And yes, the country has been raped and pillaged by the ANC, But hey? why would it be different to any other African country?
    Its sad, its scary but its still a good life in the bubble, spending apartheid earned money! Its the kids that are suffering! And they are leaving in their thousands, leaving us to face the music? What a mess!


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