Society in Crisis

SA society in crisis – not only government to blame

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South Africans have lost faith in the systems within which they are living their lives and hoping to shape their futures. Not only government is to blame, as systems on many fronts seem to be collapsing.

The symptoms of systemic collapse abound and South Africa is not alone in this, although it affords us a good case study of the discontent developing worldwide.

At the core of it all is the frustration resulting from a sense among many people of being robbed of control over their lives, while frames of reference on almost every front are disintegrating.

If in an article headlined ‘The positive effect of corruption’, a respected economist and head of research at an advisory company, can argue in a major newspaper that corruption might have a positive effect on the economy, you know that age-old accepted wisdoms are in trouble – if not gone already.

This new ‘wisdom’ flies in the face of the research findings of another distinguished international economist, Paolo Mauro, almost exactly twenty years ago, that “the negative association between corruption and investment, as well as growth, is significant in both a statistical and an economic sense”.

And Mauro’s assessment does not even deal with the moral and ethical implications of corruption, which seem to have become part of a ‘new normal’ – a new normal that implies that rules don’t matter.

What has happened?

The question that needs to be asked, is what has happened to bring us to this point?

There is numerous and complex reasons for coming to the point where the broader society has lost faith in rules (and in the institutions that should police them) to protect their best interest and expectations for their future well-being.

News about corruption and discrimination against the ‘man in the street’ have become such an everyday occurrence – from 36 000 ‘ghost employees’ drawing salaries to the tune of R19 billion in one SA province alone, to the deal between the ruling ANC’s Chancellor House and Hitachi and the VW scandal – that society becomes conditioned to it as ‘normal’.

Just from the examples used above, it is clear that it is not only the government sector that is to blame.

Not only is a private sector entity often party to corruption in government circles, and often in the role of the ‘enabler’, but the balance sheet seems to have become the only guiding principle.

That large sections of South African society have given up on the hope that state institutions will protect their best interests is reflected in the escalation of vigilante actions – suspected criminals are hunted down and killed in communities across the country.

There has also been an uptick in reports of the SA Police Service (SAPS) using not only excessive force when dealing with ever-increasing protests (more than 70 protest marches having taken place last month alone) and extrajudicial actions to ‘punish’ and even execute crime suspects.

Much of the breakdown of trust between the public and the SAPS is blamed on the policy over recent years of political ‘deployees’ who then became embroiled in controversy,

In particular, the tendency towards self-righteous illegal actions by SAPS members is blamed on former police commissioner Bheki Cele's “shoot to kill” mantra for dealing with criminals. But then, at the same time that a video appeared on social media of a police ‘execution’ in Krugersdorp, a respected NGO think tank sees it fit to release an analysis of crime statistics seeming to indicate that Cele, in regard of armed robberies, had “the best record” of all the commissioners that followed him in the job.

To what extent the South African public has become conditioned about this, is reflected by the report of an investigative reporter that in the hours following the appearance of the video of the ‘execution’ on Facebook, “not a single person of the 703 who commented … expressed shock or horror at the lawlessness of the event”.

Wider perspective

There are, however, also wider and deeper perspectives of how, why and to what extent the moral/ethical frame of reference of present-day societies has changed or is crumbling, leaving many with a general feeling of discontent.

In an analysis under the heading ‘The Disgruntled Masses’, International Strategic Analysis recently wrote: “Since the global financial crisis erupted, more than seven years ago, the global economy has undergone some fundamental changes that have left many entire sectors of the economy in a much worse shape than they were prior to the crisis.”

It also concludes: “With the middle class in jeopardy and with little future for unskilled workers, the developed world is about to face a crisis that could tear many countries apart.”

This, combined with the ‘financialisation’ of the global economy over recent decades, has undermined the validity of other long-held ‘truths’. Among these are that hard work and a thrifty lifestyle, underpinned by savings, equal individual economic well-being.

In an article last week under the heading ‘The bias against savings’, The Economist wrote: “It seems hard these days to find anyone who has a good word for savings, or savers.”

And, on The Conversation website, Grant Kruger of the University of the Witwatersrand wrote: “Not enough consideration is given to encouraging poor people to build assets.”

Financial transactions and money flow that seldom directly contribute to actual production, have also become dominant in economies worldwide and have seen wealth gaps widening.

South Africa, despite being a developing economy, has not escaped this trend, becoming largely a tertiary services economy. In 2014, for example, the value of the financial sector as a share of total GDP was almost double that of the mining and agriculture sectors combined.

Democracy in danger

In line with global trends, representative democracy, and the political parties and leaders central to it, has also become the target of deep-seated cynicism among the broad public – putting the very system in mortal danger.

Much blame for this can be laid at the door of political parties and their leaders. The scandal upon scandal of the ruling ANC is well known.

But then, the official opposition Democratic Alliance is now itself embroiled in the controversy of some its members of parliament breaking the rules on disclosure of financial interests.

Symptomatic of how at least some sections of the South African community are losing faith in the ‘system’ to protect them, is the launch of a R3.5 billion plan by the Solidarity movement to secure the future of Afrikaans speakers.

This splintering in the South African body politic is also evident in the rise of populist politics and parties as many black people live the reality of frustrated expectations. 

In another article on The Conversation last week, John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, wrote: “…all’s not well in the house of elections; public fractiousness and political dissent are brewing. There are signs of rising citizen disaffection with mainstream ‘catch-all’ parties accused of failing to be all good things to all voters.”

He poses the question: “Is the universal belief in the universality of ‘free and fair’ elections a mid-20th-century delusion, a worn-out dogma now urgently in need of replacement by fresh visions and new democratic innovations fit for our times?”

In a world of mass alienation between the governing elite and the governed, of widening inequalities and of emotions of helplessness, elections are to date the only peaceful escape valve.

It has become a society in crisis and a breeding ground for revolt, in the words of The Economist, “… even against liberators. Societies only remain patient for so long before they start demanding the promised fruits of democracy and freedom. This can either be through the ballot box or through outright revolt.”

For South Africa, the 2016 municipal elections may very well give the country a glimpse into what extent the will of the people is indeed respected and if the present model of democracy will survive.

by Piet Coetzer

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