Who's really in charge in SA?

Since the beginning of 2019 – a year that is of great importance to South Africa because of the coming general elections just months away – it has been hard to shake off the feeling that the direction we take in the future is no longer entirely in our hands.

Servicing our debt as a country has consistently stood as one of the biggest budget items. The cost of servicing debt is expected to increase to 15% of budget revenue by the year 2021.

Last year we had some painful conversations about why South Africa cannot go on being the unequal society that it is. Fuel prices and other costs related to day-to-day living did not let up in 2018.

Small businesses – the touted heroes of our struggling economy – have long been held hostage by a government that fails to pay suppliers on time. Millions of South Africans – many of them youth – live in daily despair because they are unable to find work, even if educated.

As a South African, it has become temptingly easy to believe one is no longer in control of the direction life takes. But if you think the status quo is affecting you alone, then I have news for you, my average Janes and Joes, you are not the only ones.

You see, the current situation has frustrated government ministers to no end since last year. Our ministers have been fielding questions regarding speculation that our government has rolled out the red carpet for larger economies to open up shop in Mzansi with minimal benefit for us.

In a written reply to parliamentary questions about a Chinese power station in Pelindaba Limpopo, one can almost hear the strain in Minister of Energy Jeff Radebe's insistence that he knew nothing about the project, which is allegedly meant to supply China alone.

Business Insider said President Cyril Ramaphosa reportedly signed a deal with the Chinese for the 4600 MW coal power station to be built in Limpopo to supply power to a Chinese industrial park. Asked about this in Parliament, Radebe seemingly could not fathom where it was coming from.

"The Department of Energy still has no knowledge and/or update of the said project in Limpopo Province," said Radebe’s recent reply to the question from Natasha Ntlangwini.

Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan had to deny that there were any plans afoot, to the knowledge of his department, to sell government’s shareholding in arms company Denel.

While Gordhan said additional information would have to be sought from Denel, there were no plans to sell government’s shares in Denel to the Saudis.

"There is no proposal from the country in question under consideration. Should government decide to reduce or relinquish its shareholding in any state-owned company under the authority of the Department of Public Enterprises, this will be done through a transparent, public process," Gordhan said.

And, of course, who can forget the headaches that nervous MPs caused Ramaphosa with the incessant questions about the terms and conditions of the R33.4bn loan Eskom received from the China Development Bank around the time of the Brics summit?

The fact that speculation was in full swing that the Chinese were on the cusp of scooping Zambian power entity Zesco over its failure to pay back a loan did not do much good for the nerves of everyone concerned.

Ramaphosa has said repeatedly that even though the terms of the loan to Eskom must remain confidential, the government of South Africa did not get itself and the power utility into a Faustian bargain for the funding.

Much of this paranoia is somewhat justified. We are only two years off the heels of government trying to push through a nuclear build deal that, if estimates are credible, would have cost our country so much, we would not have been able to repay the amount in this generation or the next.

We are not powerless

The powerlessness of it all, as a concerned South African citizen, must be a particularly bitter pill to swallow. This is when it becomes vital to employ perspective.

We are safe from the darkest intentions of our leaders, and if we are not, we have an opportunity to evade that danger when we vote later this year.

South Africans from all walks of life would do well to remember that many of their fellow citizens have felt as if their lives – both personally and as a nation – are in the hands of those more powerful than us.

Whether it is unemployment, gratuitous financial obligations, poverty, crime or landlessness, too many South Africans have cause for pessimism. The only elixir for this is transparent and accountable leadership.

Ramaphosa’s frank account of the the Zuma years at Davos – he actually characterised the eight-year period as "economic stagnation and political paralysis" – is one that some South Africans can agree with.

However, continuing to keep South Africa in the dark begets only more fear and worry. Laying our future on the table might make for a dreadful fright in terms of how much trouble we are in, but knowledge is the placebo we might need to help us feel like we are in the driving seat again.

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