South Africa: Why do you make me hate you?

Originally published in Daily Maverick

On August 1, when Ferial Haffajee delivered the TB Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, I found it difficult to share the curiously optimistic tone of much of her presentation. Her talk was ostensibly on Zuma’s Spear – in my mind, one of the more depressing moments in a thoroughly unpleasant year for anyone who hopes for the Rainbow Nation rhetoric to one day mean something concrete or worthwhile.

The talk opened with pictures of medal winners at the London Olympics, and also contained various other examples of South Africans doing things that could also make one proud, assuming of course that “being South African” means anything to you. And why should it? Because when we get to the end of year news roundups, there will be far more there to make you angry than to make you proud.

Textbooks in Limpopo were dumped. Children are being taught under trees while government officials tie up deals for R2bn presidential business jets. As you know, I could go on – we all could, such is the plethora of bad-news stories us South Africans know all too well. And then, last week, dozens of striking miners were shot and killed by police at Marikana.

The temporary balm of an Olympic gold medal or three is meaningless now, just as that Rugby World Cup victory 1995 became meaningless, and just as those queues around polling stations in 1994 have become meaningless in light of a government who shows little evidence of any concern for anything but their own status.

But the first democratic elections at least retained meaning for a few years. By the time we got to the World Cup victory, meaning was perhaps preserved for a few months. Now, we’re down to weeks or even days before a nation-building event like the success of our Olympians is overshadowed by something far more representative of our nation than sporting excellence is.

Or maybe more representative than any sort of excellence, excepting perhaps excelling at things like hate, misunderstanding, selfishness and short-term thinking. The South Africa in which we’re ranked first in test cricket is not the one that most South Africans live in, nor a source of inspiration to someone who feels lucky to earn R5000 per month.

Perversely, it’s no doubt true for many that they would consider themselves lucky to earn even that small amount, and to be able to send half of it on to family even more desperate than they are. I remember a line from a Charles Bukowski reading – “one learns survival by surviving”. And such is the strength of this instinct to survive – and the cultural programming of considering it a good in itself to be alive, regardless of circumstance – that people keep on doing it, even though the life in question is probably never going to become more worth living.

A politician visiting Marikana can’t say things like this, of course. And while I realise that there’s standard diplomatic formulations for cases like there, I’d also like to think that a presidential spokesperson won’t take the opportunity to remind us of how busy and important Zuma is, in telling us he’s deigned to cut a trip short because he “is concerned about the violent nature of the protest” and is “sympathetic to calls for a commission of inquiry”. Just get there, preferably before the rabble-rousers like Malema do.

And perhaps, advise your ministers to exercise caution when speaking to the media. After all, it’s not ideal to hear the Minister of Mineral Resource, Susan Shabangu, observing that these deaths are “unfortunate for the [mining] industry”, especially in light of platinum prices.  Or better yet, consider appointing ministers who don’t need to be given advice like this in the first instance.

Besides anger and sadness, another reasonable reaction to a tragedy is perhaps to ask this question: when should South Africans begin entertaining the possibility that we have an illegitimate government? Not because they can magically fix poverty, but because some in government seem intent on breaking the things that could, like education. Education – one of the things that can help angry miners learn that it’s not true that a Sangoma can make you bulletproof.

And when they do break these things, they always keep their jobs, just as they do when they steal public money – so long as they support the right ANC faction, of course. So no, I can’t share the optimistic tone of Ferial Haffajee’s lecture. Today, I could say that I hate this country. In fact, I hate it enough to stay and to try to help break it, hopefully so that we can then start to rebuild it into something worth being proud of.

Jerm’s cartoon, reproduced below with his permission, was one of the motivating factors in writing this column.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.