My Country of Flickering Lights”€”Dispatches from the New South Africa

 

Cape Town in December isn”€™t South Africa or even Africa. It resonates deeply with sophistication, void of boring locals. The restaurants are world class, accompanied by some of the finest wine lists in the Southern Hemisphere, and the beach bars and bistros spill out onto pavements with loudspeakers blasting music from Grace Jones to Julio Iglesias. The sun is merciless, the sea turquoise, and the European women seem to openly demonstrate natural liberty toward public nudity everywhere you look. In other words, the lights burn brightly.

 

Twelve days later, and it’s time to get back to Africa, or Johannesburg. A dark start to the year for the continent has seen the cancellation of the Dakar Rally due to threats from the folks who bought us 9/11, completely unexpected Zimbabwe-ruling-party style behavior in Kenya, and the failure of South African President Thabo Mbeki‘s last ditch mediation efforts in Robert Mugabe‘s disgraceful Kingdom of Lies, Murder and Thievery. In South Africa, the news is dreary and the contemptuous response of supposedly accountable politicians is seeping paranoia through the once vibrant life vein of optimism. The National Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi, has been arrested for corruption and bribery; in a country where crime is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis, this news, although welcome, has exposed the President as a liar and shaved away any remaining whiskers of his credibility. But Mbeki is old news and dead wood: on the 21st of December 2007, the self proclaimed World’s Greatest Liberation Movement, the ANC, voted Jacob Zuma as Party President. This only becomes startling when one considers that our new effective President was acquitted on a rape charge last year but stands accused of monumental corruption and will officially stand trial in August of this year.

 

Zuma’s appointment and wringing of changes resemble more of a L.A. South Central Gang’s rap sheet than it does an executive of officials. Oh well.

 

Against the run of this uncertainty, constant drizzle in summer and genocidal behavior of motorists on the city roads, an invitation to break bread and bicker at the residence of a Latin American diplomat in Pretoria arrived. The country’s political capital is thunderstruck, grey, and apart from a few Jacarandas in September, completely depressing and disheartening. A greasy chasm of jealously and violent contempt exists between the cities two main residents “€“ the Afrikaners who once ruled it and the blacks who rule it now. Nevertheless, a trip across makes for an interesting occasion to flash a cultural passport and, if nothing else, to sport some facial hair. But Johannesburg is a city of broken promises and dashed expectations: no sooner had I stepped foot inside the taxi when my mobile rang and someone informed me the other guests were officials from the Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea Diplomatic Corps.

 

Most people I know spent New Year’s Eve in civilized surroundings. Not these folk. Some of the ruling party (Zanu-PF) clan celebrated on the shores of Lake Kariba, 320km from the Zimbabwean capital Harare. Instead of respecting what are naturally beautiful surroundings, these revelers taunted a famous, relatively tame 50-year old elephant bull named Tusker by feeding it glass and pinching its tail to the point where the terrified animal trampled a car and was subsequently shot. “I don”€™t know,” one of the Zimbabweans present at the embassy shrugged with a straight face, “we were just playing with it.” One of the Equatorial Guinea crew also had some interesting stories. Prior to my arrival he had allegedly told another guest that he had been in the Caribbean on a boat chartered by the amateur-rapist son of Equatorial Guinea’s reluctant cannibal and incumbent President for Life, Theodore Obiang Nguema. Whilst the vast majority of Equatorial Guinea’s population live in squalor, the Nguema clan plunder the vast oil royalties on houses in exotic locations, cars and French Champagne (bottles of which were, according to the aforementioned guest, smashed upon the heads of two Russian whores procured for the West Indies jaunt). These same officials are all too aware of the indiscretions associated with their dark regimes and bandit dictators. So they prowl the cities nightclubs joined at the hip, complete with black 4x4s and cheap hip hop pumped to near Satanic volumes from the stereos. They sneer at local journalists who question the flagrant abuse of human rights in their countries. But what they are is irrelevant; sitting at dinner I was more concerned with what they represented. And just as patience with bad table manners, characterized by the offspring of these officials answering their mobile phones at the table in pseudo Bronx accents was waning, the lights went off.

 

In South Africa, a term “load shedding” has captivated absolutely every single South African for the past two weeks. How is that possible? “Load shedding” is just another bureaucratic euphemism for a power failure. Whilst suburbs in Johannesburg are blacked out for a maximum of two hours three times a day (unlike Harare), businesses are reeling on their knees against the weight of something that could have been avoided with the application of political will. According to experts, these problems will persist until 2012, but in truth, the incompetence of our national electricity provider, Eskom, is toward the bottom of a list of important issues. Given the fact that we live in one in a beautiful country and have iconic reputations in the field of sports, medicine and arts, these issues are inevitably political, deeply threatening with dire consequences. The die, it must be said, has been cast. You see, it doesn”€™t matter to the anti-social officials present in Pretoria that hundreds of thousands qualified Zimbabwean doctors and management consultants turned car guard immigrants roam the streets outside restaurants in Johannesburg. It doesn”€™t matter Robert Mugabe has slaughtered a once beautiful country with impunity (and the support of the South African government). What matters is the age old Africanism of power at all costs and at any volume of life (specifically black life). Is this a glimpse into South Africa’s future?

 

South Africa has been plunged into uncertainty following the revelations as to exactly why it is faced with paralyzing ‘load shedding’ and rolling blackouts. It has since emerged that in as early as 1994, the ANC were confronted with this inconvinient truth in the form of a white paper by the electricity parastatal, Eskom. Instead of investing in the construction of more power stations, the government blatantly ignored it (and the needs of education). Money was rather diverted into the aqcuisition of helicopters and gunships far beyond the country’s needs. It has also emerged that Eskom undertook a “positive discrimination” process and replaced qualified white technicians with poorly experienced black ones. As a result, the redundant engineers packed their bags and departed; Eskom never replaced these individuals thus the ‘capacity’ issues. But Eskom and the politicians were compelled by devious motives: surrounded by number crunchers, the money that was required to sustain these highly skilled engineers could be put to better use elsewhere “€“ namely in the pockets of the executive and politicians.

 

Under Jacob Zuma, the new National Executive Council (NEC), convened for the first time since election in December last week. A third of it consists of die-hard communists, another third of convicted and alleged criminals. One would have thought that the major issue was the power crisis but no, instead a priority resolution was passed to incorporate our only effective crime fighting body “€“ The Directorate of Special Operations (The Scorpions) “€“ into our wholly ineffective police force.

 

The NEC realizes that many of their body is guilty of either fraud or corruption. Shoot the good guys then and keep your fingers in the till.

 

Apart from an insignificant and poorly worded apology from President Thabo Mbeki, we have yet to appreciate the extent of circumstances that has rendered us void of electricity and instead have to rely upon investigative journalism. Whilst a man’s life should be run by the principle of taking responsibility for ones actions and appreciating the consequences, the ANC has yet to discover the word listed in the first quarter of the Oxford dictionary: “accountability”.

 
 

I was never a fan of President Thabo Mbeki. His self-induced isolation and academic superiority has been inaccessible to a population largely illiterate and ultimately led to his downfall in the recent party elections. Whilst economic growth has been consistent, Mbeki has failed miserably on the points of Zimbabwe (he openly supports Robert Mugabe), HIV / Aids (which, according to him and his disgraceful Health Minister, is simply a conspiracy between intergalactic aliens and the Illuminati to rid the world of blacks), and crime (“€œIt is a perception that crime is out of control in South Africa”€). In the murky world of ANC party elections, failures count more than successes.

 

History demonstrates that African leaders, when faced with defeat, threaten in turn two pillars of democracy: the judiciary and the freedom of the media. Robert Mugabe, fearing an electoral defeat in 2001, went further by allocating sinister intelligence resources to the monitoring of both. Mugabe’s conscious decision to destroy his people and his country through violent land invasions was declared illegal by branches of the judiciary but this didn’t stop frenzied war veterans. Similarly when independent media criticized the lawlessness, offices and printing plants were bombed and impartial editors were physically threatened or extradited. The state owned Herald has subsequently become a circus of repulsion (just last week the editor called upon the President to severe sporting ties with Australia). So it should come as no surprise then that Jacob Zuma, fearing imminent prosecution with not even one month behind his election, has launched an offensive into both the judiciary and the media. His hawkish executive is slowly eroding away the old guard and criticizing institutions such as freedom of expression, just like Mugabe did. If such a thing as electricity existed, alarm bells would be sounding.

 

The dinner ended badly. In fact, it couldn’t have been worse. Aided perhaps by magnificent Argentinean Malbec, a few white guests announced that 2008 would herald the end of Mugabe. “€œYour disillusioned and disaffected youth have become too powerful,”€ a Columbian guest argued, “€œthey sit in South Africa watching ZANU-PF choose Mugabe as their preferred candidate for the March elections and they have had enough.”€ But they don’t just sit here. Mugabe’s youth militia camps are no longer a secret, and they, like everyone regardless of their initial homage, are fed up. If Mugabe is indeed toppled this year, then the conspirators, like many an African coup, will most probably be groups or individuals he himself created. For the conditions of a Faustian pact are no less: what the bad Devil gives, the bad Devil taketh away.

 

Despite the desperation exposure to proponents of corruption and maladministration brings, I’d like to caution a plea for a mild panic; I cannot see South Africa descending into the political, social and economic chaos of either Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea. The brilliant Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, agrees: “€œSouth Africa will always be the one beacon of shining light at the bottom of the continent. It would take a despotic, corrupt ruler to retard it.”€ Like Jacob Zuma? Not necessarily. Here’s why.

 

Many commentators argue that South Africa’s perceived political vulnerability has been created by a fractious relationship shared by Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Upon Mbeki’s departure from the presidency of the party, he revealed the card up his sleeve and so powerful are these charges of corruption that it is doubtful Zuma will survive. “€œNobody fucks with Mbeki like Zuma has done,”€ the latter’s spokesperson has been known to acknowledge. So we’ll never see whether Zuma is Africa’s next Mugabe or not. In Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa “€“ 50 years after Independence, he describes the special brand of African corruption as being the endemic mechanism that filters down “from president’s fingers to those of the custom official, to those of the security guard at the unofficial roadblock”€. Discarding Zuma’s charm, both he and the likes of Nguema and Mugabe are of one blood and whilst they exist upon the same journey, they are at different points.

 

For us whites, Africa continually changes. Pray for sunshine but carry an umbrella. Pray to write under hurricane bulb but keep a handy stock of candles (unless you’re in Cape Town). A few years ago en route to the grotty little Indian Ocean island of The Comores, I sat next to a pilot whose usual route was London to Johannesburg. “€œMust be an easy flight, just turn on the auto pilot,”€ I said, to which he shook his head. “€œWe rely upon communication from other airlines as nothing works down there. No lights, no beacons. We stay well awake in Africa.”€

 

Unless South Africa wants to become the next Equatorial Guinea or Zimbabwe, ruled by darkness in darkness, the country will do well to heed this mantra.

 

 

Simon Reader was born in South Africa. He has served as an international consultant to the U.S. Department of Defence and the U.S. National Institute of Health and worked with MTV Viacom and the governments of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. He currently serves as chairman of Ballet Africa, and is a senior student of Kung Fu.



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