In the early 1990s South African cynics coined a phrase that they gleefully used to denigrate journalists who saw the positive side of the changes the country was going through.
As Nelson Mandela and his comrades were released from jail, the ANC and other liberation movements were unbanned and exiles returned home, these “optimistic” journalists wrote about the non-racial country we were being given and the inclusive future we had the possibility of building.
Yet the cynics kept having a go at them. South Africa, they said, would go the way of all Africa: wars, poverty, and corruption.
The journalists were accused of “sunshine journalism”. They were told they were blind to “the real ANC” and its communist allies. They were told the country would implode in 1994.
South Africa did not implode. Instead, under the wisdom of Mandela and the steady hand of Thabo Mbeki, what followed were 14 fat years of economic growth and stability. Don’t get me wrong–there were massive failures as well under these two presidents, but the trajectory was upwards and onwards.
I have always been a sunshine journalist. Whenever I have attended ANC meetings and been confronted by angry loyalists asking why I criticise them, my answer is simple: “I criticise out of love for this country.”
I see a future for South Africa and, therefore, like the members of the ANC and other parties, I also want the best for it. The most patriotic thing I can do for my fellow citizens is to write, and write again, and continue writing. Even when I am at my most critical, the point is that I am critical to help, somehow, right the wrongs that afflict us.
I am making this point because it is becoming harder to be an optimist in South Africa. Corruption is becoming endemic and it is destroying virtually everything that we stand for and hold dear.
It is becoming impossible not to, every so often, shake one’s head and wonder if the cynics were right.
I am reminded of Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel’s report a few weeks ago. It contains three haunting paragraphs. They read: “Political change brings no guarantee of social, economic or indeed political progress. Throughout history many civilisations, empires and countries have experienced dramatic decline rather than progress.
“The indicators most often associated with decline include rising corruption; weakening of state and civil society institutions; poor economic management; skills and capital flight; politics dominated by short-termism; ethnicity or factionalism; and lack of maintenance of infrastructure and standards of service.
“Elements of these indicators are already visible in South Africa, though their strength and prevalence is uneven and differs from sector to sector. If they become more prevalent, the country’s progress could be stalled, its gains reversed and even the foundational aspects of democracy unraveled.”
Corruption in South Africa has now reached unspeakable levels. It is spoken of as if it is part of the norm. For many of us, it is now part of doing business with the government. For many citizens, it is just part of what we have become.
I spoke to a group of women last week who casually agreed that they would buy their driver’s licenses. Why? They believe that driving inspectors will fail them just so they should pay bribes. These are intelligent individuals with degrees–and they have lost all faith in the system.
Can I blame them? Last week, Cosatu asked why President Jacob Zuma had not lifted a finger on acts or accusations of clear corruption in his administration. Cosatu cited several of these acts.
First, Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka allegedly used taxpayers’ money to visit a girlfriend in jail in Switzerland. Months after the scandal, Zuma has done nothing.
Second, Northern Cape ANC chairman and finance MEC John Block is still in his office despite charges of corruption and fraud.
New allegations on the arms deal have come up. Zuma has not acted. Why not?
When a newspaper sent questions to Zuma’s spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, he sent an SMS saying: “No comment.”
There are so many instances of cronyism, downright corruption and bribery, the whole thing has become farcical.
The ANC as a party is not much help. Its investment arm, Chancellor House, is an example of high-level looting of state resources.
There is no leadership on the issue. The Zuma family is so mired in controversy, the president cannot move.
South Africa has brilliant sunshine even in the middle of winter. Increasingly, though, it seems that’s all we’ve got. And that cannot build a country.