2010: Welcome to the upside-down world of South Africa

By Dale T. McKinley

January 11, 2010 -- SACIS -- Even if the meanings we give to measurements of time are most often overblown, there is something about the mark of a new decade. In the case of South Africa, 1990 marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid system, ushering in a period pregnant with new hopes, possibilities and dreams. When 2000 rolled around it heralded not only a once in a lifetime turn of a century but carried with it the delayed weight of the majority expectation of an age of progress and plenty. So what are our "inheritances" as we begin the new decade? Where do things stand? What is the mark of 2010?

No doubt, the most obvious and widespread association with 2010 in South Africa is the upcoming soccer World Cup. The amount of work, money, media coverage and public propaganda expended in the last few years on this month-long event is unparalleled in our short post-apartheid history. Indeed, the sporting showpiece is being presented as South Africa’s defining moment, the crowning glory of the political, social and economic standing of a nation, confirmation that South Africa is on the right path and has "arrived" as a "world class" country. Anything to the contrary is to be seen and treated as unpatriotic, negative and inherently treasonous ("counter-revolutionary" can’t be far away ...).

But there is something seriously distorted about the dominant picture that has been painted. If a government that has spent billions to build new stadiums and other infrastructure mostly designed to service tourists and a small domestic minority cannot ensure that school kids in the most needy of communities have decent soccer facilities and equipment, or that meaningful development programs are in place for players in those communities where soccer is one of the most basic forms of social relations and recreational activity, then it should be clear that priorities have gone horribly wrong. When politicians, corporate mandarins and most of the media try to outdo each other in glossing over (and in many cases, practically hide, rationalise and deny) the "dirty" realities of South Africa’s grinding poverty, homelessness and mass inequality in the rush to join the elitist imaging, self-interested short-term palliatives and profit-gouging of the FIFA mafia, we should know that the picture is a fake.

The soccer World Cup is, however, simply South Africa’s "gorilla in the room" metaphor for what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano so ingeniously describes as our “upside down” world. It is a world where “lead learns to float, cork to sink, snakes to fly and clouds drag themselves along the ground”.

Like the politically convenient and elitist "forgiving" of apartheid-era politicians and generals clearly guilty of crimes against humanity, the fact that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world has already been swept under the carpet less than a few months after it was once again statistically reconfirmed. The frenzied capital accumulation of the last decade that has produced more South African multimillionaires per capita than any other country in the "developing" world is celebrated as a sign of national pride and developmental maturity. Meanwhile, the complementary fact of ever-increasing unemployment and record inequality is fiercely contested and made to appear as either a necessary (systemic) aberration or as an "Afro-pessimist" and racist plot to discredit the government and the nation.

When it comes to basic needs/services for the majority, things are certainly not as they appear. We continue to be regaled with exaggerated claims of delivery around things such as electricity, water and housing but are told nothing about the sustainability and affordability of such deliverables for that majority. No surprise then that the recent revelation that South Africa's electricty utility Eskom is charging high-end industrial consumers of electricity less than a third of what low-income residential consumers pay per KwH received scarcely a comment from those in positions of power and privilege. Similarly, the Constitutional Court judgment in late 2009, which effectively ruled that the enjoyment of the most basic need of life -- water -- should be determined by one's ability to pay, was widely hailed as progressive and humane. In other words, if you are rich and use large amounts of a basic need/service you are affirmed and encouraged. Bad luck to everyone else, just grin and bear it.

What of the application of the law when it comes to that most practically ubiquitous but conceptually manipulated of 21st century South African "problems", crime? Collude with your fellow corporates over several years to fix the price of some of the most basic food staples (read: stealing from those least able to afford it) and your punishment is a minimal fine and some mild public scolding. Get caught stealing a loaf of bread from a grocery store and you’ll most likely to end up sitting in a jail cell for months before being criminally convicted of theft. Get arrested for rape and your bail will hardly ever exceed R2000. Engage in "public violence" while being a part of a community demonstration against local corruption and non-delivery of services and you can expect outrageously high and strict bail conditions.

Things are even more upside down in the realm of leadership, work and personal responsibility. Here in South Africa, and this applies equally to the public and private sectors, dishonesty and incompetence are either rewarded or simply ignored and replicated. With a few exceptions, those who expose and confront the truth, who raise the alarm and who try to uphold collective, social as well as personal accountability are punished, marginalised, labelled and made to feel like outcast spoilers who do not belong. It is as if basic honesty and human decency have come to be seen as just another set of commodities, whose realisation only has meaning and application in the context of a self-beneficial application or transaction. When lying, cheating and conscious ineptitude not only become standard "governance" practice (whatever the "sector") but widely accepted within the social and economic sinews that hold societal institutions and life together, we are in deep crisis.  

So, is 2010 and the new decade it heralds already a "lost" cause? Not quite. Upside-down worlds tend to create and incubate a great deal of disorientation and disillusion, precisely the kind of societal "attributes" that those who are on top seek to feed and sustain. Fortunately, despite the various semantic nomenclature created and sustained -– in speeches, in education, in advertisements, in political debates et al. -- to deflect and obscure social dysfunction, to colonise and/or distort the real meaning of words and to excoriate the unwanted/uncomfortable, reality, like pap at the bottom of the pot, has a way of always sticking. There is no law, no social norm, no impenetrable barrier that prevents us from changing that reality as opposed to suffering it.

[Dale T. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist based in Johannesburg. This article first appeared at the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service and posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission.]