SA’s state of play: Of politics and bloodsucking fleas

A cat scratching as fleas bite it. Pali Lehohla muses over fleas and politics. File

A cat scratching as fleas bite it. Pali Lehohla muses over fleas and politics. File

Published Nov 27, 2023


On his return to politics in Lesotho, Chief Retselisitsoe Sekhonyana (who died on November 18, 1998) said he had come back to it out of patriotism because he had, after all, over the years, gotten enough from his life. He called himself a flea that was full and needed no more. He had sucked enough blood and there was no more space for sucking further.

Shamil Ismail of Primaresearch, who recently released a book titled The Age of Decay (left), with Dr Pali Lehohla. Photo: Supplied

Over the past two weeks, I have been visiting a kennel of a different kind. One where the bark is equal if not bigger and better than the bite. The bark and bite give one hope that a different South Africa is in the making, far from the glitter and glamour of the gutter politics we have become accustomed to. In modern slang – South Africa is woke, or is getting woke, at a terrific pace.

It is through this lens that one remembers the South Africa of the late Eighties and the very early Nineties. It is this that will change the dial of the past 15 years, which have been deleterious and set us on a precipitous path where non-priorities have now been elevated to being priorities.

I can capture this moment of the prodigal son, the glutton, as one of a deceitful dog sleeping in the hay.

Every summer, after the threshing of the wheat, the chaff provides a natural stuffing for mattresses, which mothers would sew. But for boys, the raw chaff was enough of a mattress in a stack of hay outside and we would go and sleep on it in summer.

That gave us refuge from the fleas in the house. They were very unforgiving, and your skin reacted to them as they crept down the wall. When fast asleep, the unattended-to nails would scratch the inviting consequence of the flea.

What was interesting about these lousy fleas was the speed at which they would un-surmount the sheep skin that served as a mattress in the house, creep across the floor and up the wall, and rush to safety in the cracks of the wall at the slightest shine of light. With equal eagerness once it was dark, they would wash down the wall like water to walk all over our bodies in search of blood.

In summer we had a holiday from the flea battalion because we would take refuge in the freshly-produced chaff. Sleeping in chaff was certainly not only adventurous, but more comfortable.

But is winter dogs sleep in chaff too, but for a different reason. The story of the dog that sleeps at night in the hay and stops all the other animals from foraging is the story of our politics in South Africa.

By barking endlessly at cattle that try to forage all night, the master thinks the dog is barking at thieves, when that is not the case. When he wakes up in the morning, he is greeted by the “loyal” dog wagging its tail side to side with excitement. But when he tries to milk the cows in the morning, the udders are dry and he cannot get any milk. He cannot ride his favoured horse Ralienyane to visit anyone because the dog has deprived both the cattle and horse of the required fodder.

When winter ends and summer breaks, the best the dog does is to step out of the forage, but not before it raises its right leg and urinates on what has been its favoured mattress throughout the winter. That is the nature of our politics.

The chaff has been urinated on after the winter months when it was being used as a mattress. But not only that, of a dog that stops cattle and horses to forage so that there is not enough milk for the master, notenough energy for the master to ride, and of course not enough milk for the dog to also enjoy dairy.

What a life of destruction we have in South Africa – one of dogs managing the forage instead of being kept in their kennels. Not once has a flea been full from blood sucking. It never has enough.

I have been a discussant of two books that were published recently and are now on sale. The one is by Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, titled, From the Baobab to the Mosquito, and the other, by Shamil Ismail of Primaresearch, titled The Age of Decay. Both are relevant with regard to our current situation in South Africa.

Mpedi’s book is a wealth of African idioms and proverbs that unravel paradoxes and affirm that solutions are not about a straight line, but are a consequence of contemplations and argumentation. These, through the idioms, reveal solutions as to how a challenge is deliberated and embedded as a lesson for the future. The book is crucial for the rise of black business and reclaiming history.

Dr Pali Lehohla (from left) with Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, who recently published a book titled, From the Baobab to the Mosquito, and Dr Thebeetsile Kgosi Ikalafeng. Photo: Supplied

Ismail’s book represents a revolt of demography through a lens of economics. Like Mpedi, Ismail curves and twists through this book with a character called Eva, who has seen all forms of demographic transitions and what they mean. His most fertile imagination is in the revolt from replacement fertility. His doomsday scenario is backed by a pack of evidence. Albeit less likely, Ismail takes us to a depopulated world of about a billion people regenerating itself out of the Armageddon.

We ask the question through both books and point to where South Africa should be headed. Both are a must-read and will make you recognise a bloodsucking flea from a thousand kilometres away.

Dr Pali Lehohla is director of the Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of the Institute for Economic Justice at Wits, and a distinguished alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.