Are we resilient enough?

2008-02-07 00:00

It is a cliché, but it has to be said from time to time: living involves ups and downs, moments of success and relative ease and moments of intense stress and distress. This holds true for individuals, for larger groups, and for whole countries and societies.

South Africa is going through a very bad period at the moment.

One hardly needs to spell it out: everyone has been speaking and writing about it, and indeed there seems to be little else to write about. There are in fact several distinct themes within our shared anguish and anxiety, but they all seem to hang together. What holds them together, partly, is the way in which they all combine to present a picture that is deeply disturbing to the foreign investors on whom we all depend to some degree.

The main problem is of course the crisis in the production of electrical power. This is the result, clearly, of shamefully poor planning by both the government and Eskom. The country faces a dilemma, and we don’t know what will happen, or who will offer appropriate leadership. There has been much passing of the buck. This doubt about leadership is inevitably related in our minds to the general ambiguity that has been created by the strange situation where the president of the ANC may be able to give instructions to the president of the country. The alarming oddness of all this is compounded by the fact that the ANC leader and the chief of police are facing charges of corruption. This in turn links with our fears about incompetence, corruption and crime more generally. What will happen when the World Cup takes place in 2010? Also, will our economic growth falter seriously? And what of the government’s plans in relation to poverty alleviation and unemployment?

Things are in disarray. Our national self-confidence has been shaken. It is certainly our worst moment since 1994. What shall we do?

What happens to nations that are laid low? Some of them just go down and down, from one government-induced disaster to the next: one thinks currently of Zimbabwe and Burma. But some nations are able to respond to the challenge, pick themselves up, and become stronger and wiser than they were before. In recent history the two most remarkable examples of this are Japan and Germany after their devastating defeats in World War 2. They were both assisted by the U.S., but it was the national spirit, the communal psychology, which was most important.

So a choice lies before South Africa, before us all. Will we allow ourselves to grovel and disintegrate, thus setting the clock back and proving the Afro-pessimists right? Or will we be able to pull ourselves together in this crisis, put aside petty squabbles, rivalries, complaints and greeds, and do what needs to be done? I don’t know the answer to these questions. No-one does. But this is our momentous moment. I believe that South Africa could certainly do it. But will it?

What do we need? First, good and decisive leadership. The government and Eskom need to work together in a coherent way, with appropriate stakeholders, to devise a programme of action, a set of rules and incentives, and plans for the production of new power, taking cognisance of all that is known about alternative sources of energy. (Important work has been done on the possibilities, for example, of solar energy and hydro-electricity.) But this is not just a government affair: we are all involved. Probably many ordinary citizens could reduce their electricity use by 10% or 15% without very great difficulty. Some have even suggested that this crisis, if tackled sensibly, could turn out to be more of an opportunity than a disaster. Persuading people to make a necessary, environmentally friendly patriotic effort may prove to be of considerably deeper value for nation-building than merely waving flags at a rugby match.

I have spoken only of the crisis in electrical power. What of the other problems, the uncertainty in the realm of political power? One can only hope that the solution to one immediate problem, if it materialises, will contribute to the solution of the other issues.

There are various side issues. One of them is the question of culpability for our current crisis. Should heads roll? Would it help if they did? Undoubtedly it would be good to show that the neglectful are being punished and that a new leaf is being turned, but the current culture of the ANC seems not to work in this way. It is a great pity. But it is not the major issue.

That issue is clear: we must be positive. We need to bounce back, and move forward.

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