Wednesday, February 24, 2010

South Africa not as bad as many South Africans think...

2010 is my seventh year as a foreigner living in South Africa. All through the time that I have been here, I have very often heard how the ANC government is chided with almost any and every negative utterance that a livid and incensed tongue can roll out. Remarks about the ANC’s governance are habitually downbeat and derogatory. They focus on the ruling party’s shortcomings and seldom on its achievements. The personal ills of its leaders are used to demonstrate the ills of the government.

During the four years that I spent in the Eastern Cape, a supposed stronghold of the ruling party, various people from poor backgrounds such Centani, Comfimvaba, Cala and the like, in Transkei to those from affluent suburbs of Port Elizabeth, Port Alfred and so forth in Ciskei, were all synonymous in their pessimistic appraisal of the ruling party’s governance. In the Western Cape, this contempt culminated with its loss of the Western Cape province to the DA in 2009.

I have spent some time in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, driven past the Free State, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and I can testify that unhappiness with the ANC abounds. Paradoxically though, the ruling party still enjoys majority support among the electorate. The feeling among those that support it is that there is not a better alternative – the recently formed Cope is seen as a party of rebellious and bitterly disgruntled power hungry former ANC stalwarts who were deposed from leadership at Polokwane and as such, supporting it is akin to betrayal. The DA on the other hand is still seen by some as a racial party owing to the domination of its leadership and membership by whites. The other political parties are seen as too small to vest any evocative influence on governance in South Africa and that leaves many people with little choice except the ANC. Scorn however for the ANC government abounds.

For a person who comes from a country whose government has been labeled with various euphemistic ontologies such as predatory, rapacious, disastrous, brutal, military, repressive and so forth, with palpable reasons for the labels, I find the ANC’s chiding a bit overly harsh sometimes. This is not to restrain people’s views against bad governance and poor service delivery. Certainly where the government errs in governing, the general populace has every right to express their unhappiness because those in charge of service delivery were voted into those positions to deliver services to the electorate. However, I personally think that some of the expressions of this unhappiness are unwarranted, a bit overboard and sometimes uninformed and often misdirected.

A good example of the misdirection of unhappiness at the ANC government relates to the topical issue of nationalization of the mines. Up until President Jacob Gezeyihlekisa Zuma responded to it in parliament, I did not know that it was not government policy. I slipshodly never investigated the whole nationalization debate. I just sat and listened as friends and strangers hotly debated it. People talked about it everywhere and I was convinced the government was doing something wrong otherwise not everyone would be this unhappy. Lo and behold, it was only after Gezeyihlekisa responded to it in parliament that I knew the issue had not been raised by the government. Even now, I don’t understand what the hula baloo is all about. It was raised by Julius Malema and whoever has an issue with it should raise it with Julius Malema. To me, that sounds pretty simple. To go on and start lambasting the government regarding nationalization is certainly misdirected because like Gezeyihlekisa said, it is not government policy.

You would have probably heard about the destruction of people’s homes in Zimbabwe under the notorious operation Murambatsvina in Zimbabwe. I am a victim of that dreadful operation. My late parents left me a 3 bedroomed house on a piece of land measuring 35m by 65 m (2275m²). I remember that fateful day when I was at school, getting a phone call from a neighbor informing me that they were destroying the house. I got onto the first bus in the morning and when I got there, I found ruins. My inherited property was everywhere and to make matters worse, I was informed that I owed the government an equivalent of R10 000 for its labour in destroying the house. After proving to them that I could not afford it as I was only still in school, I remember the chilling declaration by the council messenger telling me that they were going to repossess the piece of land where my house had been.
Here in South Africa, the government is literally parceling out RDP houses to poor people at absolutely no charge!! And yet people are still not happy! How paradoxical. One government destroys people’s houses and sends them to live on the streets and the other builds people houses and parcels them out at absolutely no charge and yet people are not happy?! I have heard all about how poor quality the RDP houses are but hey, stop and consider what is happening elsewhere in Africa. I can’t help feeling that South Africa is not as bad as many people think it is.

Today (22.02.10) I read an article in the CapeTimes where Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa was urging the police and community leaders to keep politics out of crime. In the article, the one utterance by the minister that really caught my attention was, “I will not allow the police to be involved in politics.” Immediately, this excited memories of how Augustine Chihuri, the Zimbabwean Police Commissioner vowed in 2000 that he will never recognize any other person as president except for Robert Mugabe. To prove and consolidate his views, he allowed the police to attack all opposition party supporters and turned a blind eye against reports concerning crimes by ruling party supporters. Police vehicles were used to transport ZANU PF supporters as they perpetrated inexplicable orgies of violence at opposition supporters. The Zimbabwe Republic Police became a military wing of the ZANU PF and so when I read today that Nathi Mthethwa vowed never to allow this politicization of the police force, I just could not help but admire the man. This I say because I experienced and witnessed first hand what happens when the police gets politicized. Yes, the South African police has its own flaws, crime statistics are high, criminal conduct is rampant, corruption abounds but utterances such as the one by Nathi Mthethwa surely deserve praise.

It is an open secret that in the whole of Africa, South Africa is the only country that constitutionally recognizes same sex partnerships. In fact, same sex partnerships are criminalized in most of Africa. We all know about same sex partners who are facing possible jail terms in Malawi, Uganda and Kenya. In other African countries, the offence is punishable by death! Surely, such liberalism in South Africa ought to be lauded.

When I initially read about the UCT student who gestured ‘inappropriately’ to Gezeyihlekisa and was briefly 'ruffled' up by part of the president’s VIP protection team, I did not see anything unusual. In fact, I did not even finish reading the article because nothing felt unusual to me. You insult the president, you have to expect some chastisement of sorts – this is Africa. However, when I got into the office on that day, the atmosphere was awash with discussions of the story. There were even suggestions of a solidarity march for the UCT student. It was only then that I realized that South Africa is not Zimbabwe or any other African country. Here, people enjoy freedom of expression and it is an enshrined constitutional right!
In Zimbabwe and some other African countries, if you are suspected (without proof even) of harboring negative thoughts against the President, if you are lucky, the least you should expect is some serious thrashing from the police otherwise the majority of people just disappear, some get locked up for months on and others are murdered even. When I heard that the UCT student had simply been interrogated and locked up for a night, I thought to myself , ‘Surely, South Africa is not as bad as many South Africans think.’ No harm came to this guy and had he been in some other African country, the ending of the story would have indeed been different.

If you are reading this and you are a South African, please note that your democracy is the envy of many and a dream of countless Africans. Your country is not as bad as some think it is. There are so many admirable things about it and while it is a young democracy, it is way way incomparably much better than the rest of Africa. Having spent some time in Europe, I can argue that it is even better than some Eastern European countries.


  1. What worries me is that a couple of decades ago Zimbabwe was the envy of Africa: a phenomenal education system with high literacy rates, growth in tourism and expansion in business, the beginnings of a respectable democracy. Zimbabwe was something many South Africans dreamt of. Now it's become our national nightmare. something to avoid.

    Now I'm not saying that SA is destined to become like Zimbabwe, but South Africans worry when our state, but a burgeoning democracy, shows signs of deterioration, small abuses that might become larger abuses later. I hope that they won't and I'll try to do my bit to ensure they don't.

    Keep it up - I'm always glad to hear a non-SAn perspective on the issues.

  2. Ja...

    well pity the media ain't informing you about the woman who was arrested for swearing at a SA politician, and who spent 33 days in pollsmoor before she even saw the inside of a courtroom...

    Dude.... so because South AFrica has not yet sunk to the level of Zimbabwe.. South Africans should shut up, and not complain!


  3. @ Andrea - I think that the point of article is not to berate South Africans for criticizing what has taken place. Rather, its a celebration of how far we have come. There are problems (and here I agree with Simon's post) but the fact that South Africans are expressing concern with those problems is evidence that the system works. Its this that we have cause to celebrate.

  4. Thanks for your post Andrea but in paragraph 4, I wrote, "[T]his (article) is not to restrain people’s views against bad governance and poor service delivery. Certainly where the government errs in governing, the general populace has every right to express their unhappiness because those in charge of service delivery were voted into those positions to deliver services to the electorate."

  5. I really appreciate this post, it is important to look at what you have in a positive light (Though obviously not being blind to the problems). As the comments show, even the notion of being positive about the country sends some people into knee-jerk negativity.

  6. Constructive criticism, inter alia, is a vital component of the life blood of democracy. Government ought to be for the people and by the people, and the vigilant citizen and/or the whistle blower are crucial elements of the populace. Indeed, we need such denizens that stay about their wits, remain sober and with girded minds. It goes without say that even democratically elected governments need policing, just as much as the police themselves need policing. It is a pitiful and quite frankly embarrassing trend in Africa where liberation movements that back in the day fought tooth and nail to upend authoritarian rule, often behave in starkly undemocratic ways when in power themselves. This failure has at times been attributed to the failure of these movements to evolve from the liberation movement culture into an all inclusive democratic culture, or are the masses to blame too, did they rest on their laurels and forget their policing job?! It is now clear, following the staggering post-liberation disappointments, that it is not a given that liberation movements which fought for democracy will necessarily enshrine a democratic political culture when in power.

    As such, criticism invariably plays a bigger role in keeping political parties in check than does praise. There will always be praise, lionizing and to some degree canonizing of political individuals and this is the perfect breeding ground for haughtiness and arrogance. Autocracy progresses and grows insidiously, and a healthy dose of criticism is the pair of secateurs that keeps the political bush in shape. Essentially, if and only if an individual has aspirations to be a democratically elected leader, they ought to be tolerant of all the pelting and flak that comes with the task. The elect should never forget who put them in power in the first place, and should never disregard the diversity of the fabric of society. Spare the rod and spoil the child! Society ought to welcome all positive criticism, but is not all criticism that is intended to make, but some is indeed meant to break. There is a fine line between the two!

  7. Thanks Nkanyiso, I found this really interesting!

  8. hie interesting in deed keep us informed