Mandy Wiener

A state in depression? Finding the green shoots in SA

2019-08-02 05:00
National Director of Public Prosecutions (NPPA) Adv Shamila Batohi (L) during a media briefing in Silverton where she introduced the new Investigating Director Adv Hermione Cronje (R) at NPA Head Office on 24 May 2019. (Photo: Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

National Director of Public Prosecutions (NPPA) Adv Shamila Batohi (L) during a media briefing in Silverton where she introduced the new Investigating Director Adv Hermione Cronje (R) at NPA Head Office on 24 May 2019. (Photo: Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

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South Africa is in a depressed state. The outlook is grim and questions about the current climate are rich with cynicism and doubt. But there is hope yet, writes Mandy Wiener.

It's easy to find reasons to be negative about South Africa at the moment. For all intents and purposes, we are a state in depression. And, as South Africans, many of us are in a state of depression about the country we live in. 

Figures released this week show that the unemployment rate increased to 29% for the second quarter of 2019. In real terms, that means 10.2 million people do not have jobs. It's the worst it has been since 2008. The economy slumped in the first three months of the year, contracting by 3.2%. It's the biggest quarterly fall in economic activity since early 2009 and the wake of the global financial crisis. Speak to any business owner and they will tell you how tight times are. Money is scarce.

Eskom has reported a record loss for the year ended March 2019, of over R20bn. More load shedding is looming. That's the result of years of corruption which has sent the utility into a debt spiral. There's talk that Moody's could downgrade South Africa's sovereign debt to junk status. Politically, each day there's a new headline about scraps among factions in the ruling party and various state entities, fueling a feeling of instability about the credibility and capabilities of those who are in charge of running government and holding its own to account.

When Cyril Ramaphosa came into power just over 500 days ago, there had been enormous hopes of a turnaround of the economy.

"Just wait until after the election, once he's consolidated his power base within the ANC," we were told. But it's clear that few fully appreciated the damage done by the so-called "nine lost years" under Jacob Zuma.

The "new dawn" has not been as effective as anticipated and patience is already wearing thin. It's easy to criticise Ramaphosa within this context, calling out his inability to lead and failure to instill confidence in business, investors and citizens.

The zeitgeist of the country is negative and pessimistic. Conversations are gloomy. My experience is that many of my contemporaries are either making plans to emigrate, have left or are at least getting their "Plan B" in order. I have found myself in numerous conversations lately, justifying reasons for staying. Panic about the future has set in. To be clear, I don't hold any judgement of anyone who chooses to leave now – they're making the decision that they believe is best for their respective families.

Clearing out of old leadership

But it's not only in a social setting. At several corporates I've talked to, the outlook is grim and questions about the current climate are rich with cynicism and doubt.

While some may find my responses Pollyannaish, I remain optimistic about the future. Don't get me wrong, I say, I am a realist and I write and report on exactly what is going wrong every day. News, by its very nature, is negative. But there are also a lot of things going right that few choose to focus on.

Over the past year, there's been a clearing out of leadership at each state entity which was ravaged by state capture. At SARS, Tom Moyane has been removed and replaced by Edward Kieswetter. At the NPA, a fully transparent interview process saw Advocate Shamila Batohi being appointed as national director.

At the Hawks, the man who literally wrote the textbook on organised crime, General Godfrey Lebeya, is in charge. At the SAPS Crime Intelligence unit, which was grossly abused and looted over the past decade, General Peter Jacobs has come in. At the state-owned entities (SOEs) which were collapsed and looted through state capture, boards and executives also been booted.

Many of the new chiefs who have come in have found the mess they've inherited far worse than expected, setting back the timelines of change and action and appealing to the public for patience. We would have liked to have seen action sooner, but it's not that simple.

Inquiries to be celebrated

For the last year or so, various independent inquiries headed by retired or serving judges have been underway, with witnesses testifying in public about what has gone wrong. The Mokgoro inquiry into Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi's fitness to hold office has made a finding. Former Judge Robert Nugent made recommendations to the president about criminal prosecutions and recovery of expenditure at SARS.

Former police minister Sydney Mufamadi has investigated the country's intelligence systems and released a bombshell report on how the spies have been abused. Judge Lex Mpati's inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) is in full swing. Of course, the flagship has been Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo's inquiry into state capture, which has captivated the country. The fact that courageous whistleblowers have come forward and taken us into their confidence and testified at these hearings should be acknowledged and celebrated.

Much of what we've heard at these inquiries you also first heard about through the media, which has been vigorous, independent and thorough in its uncovering of corruption by both the state and the private sector. If I may say so myself, the fortitude of the press has been one of the highlights of this bleak era.

If you're looking for one signal in the criminal justice system that there has been a shift, it is this week's conviction of former Crime Intelligence head Richard Mdluli on charges relating to a 1999 murder. Mdluli, who once wielded immense power and influence over the SAPS and the NPA, seemed invincible. Yet this week he was found guilty in a court of law. It's imperative to point out that the Mdluli case only maintained momentum because of the persistence of civil society organisation, Freedom Under Law (FUL), which pursued the matter in the courts over the past few years.

Civil society relentless

That is the brightest green shoot in a relatively desolate landscape – the relentless commitment of civil society organisations and NGOs. Each time there has been a failure in leadership from the state, a civic movement has stepped into the breach. Think Black Sash and social grants, OUTA on e-tolls, Section 27 and Life Esidimeni. Casac, the Helen Suzman Foundation, FUL. It's a very long list of examples. There is an enormous amount of work being done behind the scenes by these various organisations to assist in the rebuilding of state agencies, much of which can't be publicised. They are working tirelessly with committed public servants on the ground to turn things around.

This is why it is so important for us to all be active citizens and to support these civic organisations, whether it is through offering your particular expertise, through a monthly debit order donation, or by giving of your time. By doing this, it allows them to litigate one more corruption case in court or support one more whistleblower. This means holding politicians to account by tweeting them or phoning your local councillor to complain. Phone into radio stations. Make some noise. Speak up. Don't be apathetic.

Yes, there's all the other amazing things this spectacular country has to offer. The beauty, the multiculturalism, the sense of humour. You can read about all that good stuff in Brent Lindeque's column.

But know that while the path of less resistance is to criticise and be negative, there are also shoots of positivity sprouting in the news cycle. Don't put your blinkers on against the reality of what is happening. That would make us remiss in holding power to account. But take some time to focus on the positives too.

- Wiener is a specialist reporter for News24.

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