The scary state of our state

2014-11-13 06:45

I admit that I am old-fashioned and love a post office. Ours is in Langlaagte, on the Reef where gold was first mined, and it feels old. It’s a face-brick standalone post office on a spacious property.

The postbox has always been a tradition in our family. While some people have migrated to electric communications or to suburban private boxes, Langlaagte feels like a bit of our history.

Last Sunday, I took my mum to fetch her mail.

A few bills were there, but most were not. It’s been like that for a while as the postal strike has lurched along this year. The Witspos hub, possibly one of the country’s busiest, has been disabled for longer than the duration of the national strike.

It looks like our post office is dying. It doesn’t matter, really, because it’s an institution of nostalgia to me because I have back-up plans to get my bills, news and communication on my cellphone.

There have been regular power cuts this year up the road where my mum lives in Mayfair. I don’t know if her area is on a problem grid, but it’s getting so awful and so unpredictable that we are investigating various back-up options.

I am resisting the thought of going out to price generators because it would feel too much like yielding to a reality my Nigerian friends tell me is inevitable. They see the writing on the wall in South Africa and say that our state is in decline. I have been comforted by our steady state of power, but it’s neither steady nor reliable any longer.

In Nigeria, my colleagues run a generator or three at their homes.

I became friends with them in long conversations when I asked incessant questions like why Nigeria is so rich but so poor. So oil-drenched but so electricity-starved. So prone to corruption. They told me how corruption had been allowed to eviscerate the state.

Each professional, said an editor buddy, is now like a local government on its own.

You take care of your own health, education, roads, power and communication. You look to the state and the council for nothing. (Does this feel like your life? It is definitely mine now).

The conversations have turned the mirror back on us – we are like Nigeria used to be and Nigeria is now morphing into a new skin.

Earlier this year, the west African giant pushed South Africa into second spot in the growth tables; it is not afraid of using its finest sons and daughters in Cabinet to galvanise growth.

Slowly but surely, the state is starting to return into the lives of its citizens as our state slowly starts to recede from our lives.

On my notice board is a poster of the water protests from last year. Most protests are for, or about, water although in the big city, Jozi, we only noticed the crisis when our taps ran dry.

Across the country, the infrastructure that used to bring us our water is decaying. Inspections, maintenance and minimum standards are no longer a way of life; they have become niceties reserved for a few municipalities.

Yet the state is becoming more expensive.

South Africa has the biggest social security budget across the continent. It has one of the highest ratios of civil servants to citizens in the world and our Cabinet is gigantic by any measure.

At the same time, it is going into decline as the electricity, water and postal crises have shown this year. Eskom and the Post Office are, in effect, bankrupt – one is run more badly than the other. The water boards are in disarray. The prognosis is not good.

What happens next is downright scary. I’m not going to be that person who lays out the scenario.

But do read Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Martin Meredith to see why now might be a good time to speak up about the state of our state.

Each of these writers has superbly chronicled freedom, state-making and the corruption of the state in a post-independent Africa.

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