SA is ‘a country stuck in a purgatory of non-government’

Inequality and poverty are increasing and many South Africans are facing hardships of hunger, destitution and rising debt amid worsening socio-economic conditions and climate change disasters, says the writer.

Inequality and poverty are increasing and many South Africans are facing hardships of hunger, destitution and rising debt amid worsening socio-economic conditions and climate change disasters, says the writer.

Published Dec 29, 2023


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

The excitement of ending one year and entering another invariably wears off as you get older, but it does not mean we cannot find some magic in the transition from 2023 to 2024.

If 2022 was novel – like the unprecedented life challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic – then 2023 took on a danker, darker tone.

The severe impact of the pandemic, corruption, climate change, political killings, dysfunctional government and associated restrictions to socio-economic development all continued to apply a blowtorch to many aspects of our public and private lives.

The shapes that emerged from the heat were often not pretty. But despite it all, we found a way to live, love and watch sports.

Political journalists have used the word unprecedented many times, and justifiably so.

Official and unofficial statistics confirm the precarious conditions many South Africans live in, crystallising several mixed events and issues that overshadowed the year.

Overshadow they did, making us wonder whether our celebration of the positive highlights – that include the passage of a series of important laws, the successful hosting of the BRICS summit, and the Springboks’s Rugby World Cup victory – has manifested our gratefulness enough as citizens of a Rainbow Nation that is alive with possibilities.

Here is one way of looking at 2023.

Doctors assessing people for signs of dementia have traditionally asked their patients: “Who is the mayor?”

Some health professionals in my social circle report that they stopped using that question this year.

There has been so much manic mayhem at the coalface of politics that it has been a struggle to keep up even for those in full possession of their faculties.

Injustice is easy to oppose after it has receded into the past, and there is no cost to imagining yourself as a hero long after the event. Everyone celebrates social grants and Aids activists now, but at the time, adversaries vilified them as promoters of dependency on the government and as promoters of pharmaceutical companies’ interests.

Which takes us to food security and climate activism. This year has seen a national onslaught against people agitating for more action to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.

Courts can issue stern judgments, but so can history, and you have to wonder about its future verdict on how the pursuit of fossil fuel exploitation and vilification of those raising the alarm escalated when the scientific evidence had become so cast-iron and when extreme weather events hammered home the imminent danger facing the human species.

Here in South Africa, a government reneging on its inclusive approach to mobilising communities behind national climate commitments – not least by expanding oil and gas licences on the national coast – is simultaneously introducing bullying tactics to silence those holding them to account.

That the rural and peri-urban populations of provinces that were former homelands are disproportionately likely to be poor, is not news.

The relationship between geographical location and poverty in this country is a strong one, embedded deep in our colonial and apartheid history.

But this year’s reports highlighting the increasing exposure of alarming numbers in the majority of provinces, of particularly women and children, to the most extreme forms of poverty is cause for alarm.

In the current context of heightened hunger and malnutrition in low-income households due to rising prices and adverse weather conditions affecting farming, the prospect of increased inequality is especially unwelcome.

The insufficient political attention to this challenge is an indictment on all political parties, and it means not only unfairness to the affected citizens but also serious hardship: hunger, destitution, cold and debt.

Under successive ANC governments, the dominant frame for discussions of inequality has been geographical, with the “better life for all” agenda supposed to redistribute opportunities and resources away from the capital-intensive industries and big cities towards parts of the country often described as “left behind”, because of underdeveloped infrastructure, as well as low skills and literacy levels of economic active population.

This approach has not delivered the promises. Underfunding critical social and economic development programmes, maladministration, corruption and a lack of public investment undermined it. But reframing inequality as primarily a problem of place has negated the importance of other aspects – including corruption.

Against this backdrop, the perspective offered by politicians’ obsession with personal enrichment and power grabbing is critical.

The looming historic contestation of the 2024 elections by independent candidates alongside political parties, has stirred the waters. The unfolding political climate already indicates that this is not some election campaign accoutrement to promote ANC policy.

It is the entirety of the government agenda and approach to governing the municipalities, the provinces and the country.

There is no functional ANC policy beyond the performance of repelling invaders and the manufacture of suspicion that the opposition coalition would welcome them in the country’s economy should they be elected.

This technique is not restricted to the tightening grip on the crumbling state-owned enterprises that continue to drain the national revenues.

The ANC’s environmental policy has been stripped down to the idea that communities opposed to the mining of the Wild Coast for oil and gas are puppets of environmental fanatics determined to repel fossil fuel mining giants off the province.

Several opposition parties are vocal in pointing out that the ANC economic policy is a game of running public services into the ground and waiting for the opposition-led coalition of local governments and, most likely, provinces to commit to investment so they can be accused of planning tax rises and prioritising advantaged white members of the population.

This is what politics looks like between now and the next elections.

Ministers, MECs and mayors simulate the business of serious administration but with a singular focus on trapping and unsettling the opposition.

The statute book is cluttered with laws drafted for use as campaign slogans, regardless of whether they can be made to work in practice.

Here we are all now, detained as desperate citizens, condemned to the in-between zone where politicians in government have run out of the political incumbency road but have not yet arrived at defeat; a country stuck in the purgatory of non-government.

Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist.

Cape Times