SA's Predicament: The Shifting Mat and Rip Van Winkle

2013-01-21 08:17

Meet Rip Van Winkle, a fictional character by Washington Irving. Rip takes delusion seriously.  In 2013, you’re more likely to find him in South Africa. Think of it as a resurrection of sorts.

Rip Van Winkle lives in a small town. He is a farmer but spends all of his time talking to his friends in a bar. One day he decides to wander off to the mountains where he meets a strange man carrying a barrel. The man takes Rip to a building where a lot of strange old men are playing a game.

He drinks some of the mysterious liquid from the barrel and falls asleep. He wakes up in the morning and goes back to his town. Everything has dramatically changed there. His house is old, his wife is dead, the bar is now a hotel (poor Rip), and there has been a big war. He himself is now a very old man. He discovers that the he has been asleep in the mountains for twenty years and that everybody thought he was dead.

South Africa’s dilemma might one day read like a Rip Van Winkle tale. Our current political climate continues to change; while we, on the other hand like Rip, are unaware and deluded.

There are Rip Van Winkles everywhere.

He lives in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) trade unionist who cannot understand why the abruptly formed Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) is making inroads. From Kusasalethu in the Westrand to parts of the Free State Goldfields area – the mat is not only shifting for mineworkers but for those who represent them too. Seasoned trade unionists are deluded. They don’t understand why an established union like NUM has lost ground to AMCU.  Corporatism and failed negotiations are what the miners cite.

You’ll find Rip in the farm owner in the Hex Valley who refuses to understand that decency cannot be legislated. Poor wages, harsh living conditions and ‘baaskap’ are the yoke of many farmworkers. This reality remains unchanged. Already things aren’t looking good for the table grape export industry. The values of exports are on the line, coupled with thousands of jobs that might also be lost if this impasse isn’t resolved.

Rip is in the uninspiring political leader who is unable to navigate his people through this period of uncertainty and strife. Instead, platitudes and promises are dished out with gay abandon.   No really understands our challenges. Our political economy is deranged, business in SA is befuddled and our hapless politicians harp on about everything and nothing. What do we do to regain control of our situation as South Africans?

How do we prevent the Rip-like delusion; lest we wake up 20 years later and realize that the mat has shifted beneath our feet?

The Shifting Mat

In seeking to regain control of our situation, part of the solution is to develop a meaningful appreciation for where our country is at the moment.

Many middle class South Africans fall victim to the Rip-like delusion too. ‘These miners and farmworkers with their strike and violence, can’ they just stop?’ a typical retort from those with the means. We all seem to find it difficult to understand why people are up in arms over wage increases and decent living conditions. We disregard these events simply because we think they’re far removed from us. Unfortunately, reality will soon set in and we will realize that inter-dependence is a reality in a society like ours.

An understanding of the ever-changing dynamics within South African society might be helpful.  A question that we perhaps need to ask is who is really leading South Africa? The blunders of our rudderless political class prove consistently that the illusion of a ruling class is fast becoming  fiction.

While we may not agree with them, a select few South Africans recognize the shift. And while we their antics may sometimes prove to be opportunistic, they have found a way to sing their own tune. The controversial man behind the protests by farmworkers in the Western Cape, Nosey Pieterse is one them. Pieterse leads the Black Association for Wine and Spirit Industry (BAWSI). It's dull-witted competition is the well-established trade union, COSATU. It's Provincial Secretary, Tony Ehrenreich says farmers do not want their workers. A question Tony has to answer then is how BAWSI and it's affiliates have managed to mobilize scores of farm workers rapidly?   With a history of bargaining success, COSATU's mantle cannot stand in a place like De Doorns.  For all his flaws, workers seem to identify with the rallying spirit of Pieterse.

Pieterse and Joseph Mathunjwa (AMCU) are both interesting figures in seeking to understand the shift in South Africa. They both represent an under-class that has always been traditionally represented by the Tripartite Alliance. Their projects are met with disdain and contempt because of the level of violence and cruelty that follows. I have had many encounters with people who simply don't understand why the project lead by these two men is gaining momentum. 'How can people (the workers) put their trust in these uncouth and opportunistic men', in true Rip-like contempt they lament. My reply is always dry, 'these men both understand that the mat has shifted, we don't'.

When we realize that the locus of power is constantly shifting, the political class is inept and that business is crippled – only then will the field be ready to harvest for citizens South Africans to regain control. Whether men like Pieterse and Mathunjwa are worthy to lead their constituencies is a senseless debate. What is worth probing is why they manage to succeed.

De Doorns will carry on, the mining impasse will also continue and the frequent service delivery protests have already started in the northern Free State town of Sasolburg. These and many more events are a test for our social pact. Tests on how best we, as citizens rise to the challenge to navigate our own way through this dreary mist.

Will we join in solidarity for better wages for miners and farmworkers? Will we be the voice of reason in the hollow halls of political discourse in our country? These questions will linger on in the quest to prevent a Rip-like delusion.

Bob Dylan’s words ring true still, The times they are a-changin’.  How we respond to the tune the times will largely determine where we land up as a nation. Like Rip, we might wake up 20 years down the line with the mat drawn beneath us.

 Follow Sibusiso on Twitter @SbuTshabs

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