South Africa's upside-down world

January 29, 2010

Even if the meanings we give to dates are most often overblown, there is something about the mark of a new decade.

In the case of South Africa, 1990 marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid system, ushering in a period pregnant with new hopes, possibilities and dreams.

When 2000 rolled around it heralded not only a once in a lifetime turn of a century but carried with it the delayed weight of the majority expectation of an age of progress and plenty.

So what is the mark of 2010?

No doubt, the most obvious and widespread association with 2010 in South Africa is the upcoming soccer World Cup.

The amount of work, money, media coverage and public propaganda expended in the past few years on this month-long event is unparalleled in our short post-apartheid history.

Indeed, the sporting showpiece is being presented as South Africa's defining moment, the crowning glory of a nation — confirmation that South Africa is on the right path and has "arrived" as a "world class" country.

Anything to the contrary is treated as unpatriotic, negative and inherently treasonous. But there is something seriously distorted about the dominant picture that has been painted. The government has spent billions to build new stadiums and other infrastructure for tourists and a small domestic minority, but cannot ensure that school kids in the most needy of communities have decent soccer facilities and equipment.

No meaningful development programs are in place for players in those communities where soccer is one of the most important forms of social and recreational activity.

When politicians, corporate mandarins and most of the media try to outdo each other in the rush to join the elitist imaging of the profit-gouging FIFA mafia, we should know that the picture is a fake. The "dirty" realities of South Africa's grinding poverty, homelessness and inequality have been hidden.

The soccer World Cup is, however, simply South Africa's "gorilla in the room" — a metaphor for what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano so ingeniously describes as our "upside-down" world. It is a world where "lead learns to float, cork to sink, snakes to fly and clouds drag themselves along the ground".

The fact that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world has already been swept under the carpet, a few months after it was again statistically reconfirmed.

The frenzied capital accumulation of the last decade has produced more South African multimillionaires per capita than any other country in the "developing" world. This is celebrated as a sign of developmental maturity.

Meanwhile, the complementary fact of ever-increasing unemployment and record inequality is fiercely contested and made to appear as either a necessary (systemic) aberration, or as an "Afro-pessimist" and racist plot to discredit the government and the nation.

When it comes to basic services for the majority, things are certainly not as they appear.

We continue to be regaled with exaggerated claims about the delivery of electricity, water and housing. But we are told nothing about the affordability of such necessities for the majority.

It was recently revealed South Africa's electricty utility Eskom is charging high-end industrial consumers of electricity less than a third of what low-income residential consumers pay per kilowatt/hour.

No surprise that this received scarcely a comment from those in positions of power and privilege.

Similarly, the Constitutional Court judgment in late 2009, which in effect ruled that access to the most basic need of life — water — should be determined by ability to pay, was widely hailed as progressive and humane. In other words, if you are rich and use large amounts of a basic need you are affirmed and encouraged. Bad luck to everyone else.

What of that most practically ubiquitous but conceptually manipulated of 21st century South African problems: crime? Collude with fellow corporates to fix the price of the most basic food staples (i.e. stealing from those least able to afford it) and your punishment is a minimal fine and some mild public scolding.

Get caught stealing a loaf of bread and you'll most likely to end up in jail for months before being convicted of theft.

Get arrested for rape and your bail will hardly ever exceed R2000. Engage in "public violence" by being a part of a community demonstration against local corruption and non-delivery of services and you can expect outrageously high and strict bail conditions.

Things are even more upside down in the realm of leadership, work and personal responsibility. Here in South Africa (and this applies equally to the public and private sectors) dishonesty and incompetence are either rewarded or simply ignored. With a few exceptions, those who expose and confront the truth — and who try to uphold collective and personal accountability — are punished, marginalised and labelled.

When lying, cheating and conscious ineptitude become standard "governance" practice (whatever the "sector"), we are in deep crisis.

So, is 2010 and the new decade it heralds already a "lost" cause?

Not quite.

Upside-down worlds tend to create disorientation and disillusionment, precisely the kind of societal "attributes" that those who are on top seek to sustain.

Fortunately, despite the attempts to deflect and obscure social dysfunction — and to distort the meaning of words — reality, like pap at the bottom of the pot, has a way of always sticking. There is no law, social norm or barrier that stops us from that reality as opposed to suffering it.

[Dale T. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist based in Johannesburg. This is an abridged version of an article from the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service.]

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