Pessimists' field day

2010-03-01 00:00

A FRIEND who considers himself something of an amateur actor very dramatically got down on his knees and kissed the tarmac at Durban Airport. He had been away from South Africa for six months and said he did this because he was thrilled to be back in the hurly burly of South African society. Life overseas, he claimed, was too boring — everything worked.

Living in a city under siege, with municipal workers on strike over illegal overtime pay and surrounded by black bin bags, I’m longing for normality.

For close on two years we were kept in high suspense during the build-up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference and all the melodrama surrounding President Jacob Zuma.

Post-Polokwane, there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief that the country was heading towards a more humdrum existence. We had a popular president, a huge following of supporters all united behind their leader; after all, they had fought so hard to get him into power. Zuma made all the right noises during the 2009 elections and opinion polls saw his popularity ratings soar.

Well, life is certainly unpredictable on the southern tip of Africa and once more we find ourselves at the centre of high drama. In the past week we’ve had ANC Youth League president Julius Malema outed as a millionaire of note, making a mockery of all his pro-poor talk. One of Zuma’s wives has been living in rent-free luxury being bankrolled by a businessman who is paying for her accommodation. The gloves are coming off in the once cosy relationship between Zuma and alliance partner Cosatu. The labour federation is deeply unhappy and the leaders who were once Zuma’s praise singers are accusing him, according to the Sunday Tribune, of being indecisive, trying to please everyone and shying away from alliance agreements. As if this were not enough, the Sunday Times exposed bitter infighting in the bowels of the presidency. According to the weekly, Zuma’s chief operations officer, Jesse Duarte, has resigned as “ugly rivalries among his most senior officials threaten to cripple the presidency”.

Afro-pessimists are surely having a field day and those who at times appear naïve in their optimism for the country must be taking a beating. But not according to my tarmac-kissing friend. The situation is nothing to despair over, he says, because what is emerging from all this mayhem is that ordinary black South Africans are finding their critical voice.

At first I wasn’t so sure I agreed with him. On Wednesday evening, I arrived home to bin bags ripped apart by dogs and uncollected refuse strewn all over the road.

Not having the energy to pick it up and it being too dark, I headed straight indoors. The next morning I found that my neighbours had reacted similarly. As one said, during previous strikes he dutifully moved the refuse out of the temptation of the neighbourhood dogs at night and then put it out the next morning in the hope the refuse truck would come calling. This time he decided enough was enough: if the municipality wanted mayhem, it would get mayhem. It seems the rest of Maritzburg feels the same. Drive through the city and you’ll see piles of uncollected garbage all around. Is this some form of tacit protest? Should we be doing more?

My friend points to reports of businessmen marching in Limpopo against Malema. He said, “Look at the letters page of every newspaper in the country, listen to radio talk shows.” Black South Africans are speaking out, sometimes to embarrassing effect, such as Lukaya and Magilogilo writing in the Sunday Times and questioning whether former President Thabo Mbeki was so bad after all.

Perhaps letter writers can be dismissed as disaffected members of the middle class, but protests are taking different forms. Take the front-page photograph in Thursday’s Witness of disgruntled residents shaking their fists and hurling abuse at the protesting municipal workers, telling them to go back to work.

On a broader front, there are growing grassroots movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo. Without fanfare, the poor are building their own network. Take a group of informal settlers living in Tumbleweed, Howick. They were served with eviction notices by the uMngeni Municipality and told they are to be moved to a site with no amenities. The community, through their network, have engaged the services of a legal team to fight their eviction. There are also the activities of former SACP activists and other leftists who have started a think tank on forging a new democratic order. I’m not in entire agreement with my friend. I believe we need real leadership within the ruling party and especially in the current vacuum that exists in our city.

• Nalini Naidoo will be on a three-month sabbatical and this is her last column.

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