MICHAEL MORRIS: SA’s problem could be that we want too little - Business Day

Thirty years ago it was taken for granted that South Africans were at last getting everything they wanted, and more.

Michael Morris

Thirty years ago it was taken for granted that South Africans were at last getting everything they wanted, and more.

With the vote came not just the immeasurable dignity of unqualified citizenship, but also the chance of a “better life”, and all of this seemingly vested in uncomplicatedly noble figures who — if you saw it that way, and everyone felt only the churlish didn’t — history had anointed.

The 1980s and early ’90s had been exceedingly bloody, but with the good sense and pragmatism of the soft capitulation of apartheid and the emergence of a constitutional democracy-in-the-making, fears of the revolutionary race war of much popular imagining proved fanciful.

Yet, though life was incomparably better in so many ways, a lot of the good things didn’t last, or even happen at all. The reasons, if arguable, are all too familiar. 

We know corruption has been prominent, along with ideologically driven policy that weighs heavily on the economy (job-stifling labour law and cost-hiking race law being obvious examples), and the related and mutually reinforcing ills of cadre deployment, incompetence and dysfunction.

But why has all this been tolerated? Failures have not been hidden, so ignorance is no explanation. South Africans have always had choices too, so helplessness does not explain it either.

Over the past 30 years I have often wondered, have South Africans simply wanted too little? Of course, it’s wise not to hanker for the impossible, but there’s tragedy in being willing to submit to habitual restraints disappointment may have taught.

I knew I had written about this before, though I’d forgotten until finding it last week that it was 22 years ago. Given the vintage, the headline of that piece has a wry appeal: “Stormy weather ahead for the rainbow nation?” Inclemency, it’s fair to say, has been a regular climatic feature of the rainbow nation, no less than its predecessors.

Altogether recognisable in 2024 is the gist of a statistical contrast highlighted at the turn of the millennium by Stellenbosch economist Sampie Terreblanche, that “roughly half — about 4-million — of the richest or best-paid 20% of South Africans formed a rapidly developing black elite ... (which) matched a decline in wealth among the 60% of poor blacks”. 

In the context of this data, I wrote: “To be discontented and yet believe a better future is realisable is to live in hope of sorts. But disillusion is another matter. That is not merely a poverty of desire, but a poverty of expectation.” 

I remember being told off at a dinner party once for saying the worst poverty was a poverty of desire. Over steaming platters it would sound heartless, but I was misunderstood.

What I really meant was borne out by last week’s reports on former president Thabo Mbeki campaigning for the ANC in Soweto (not improbably, though perhaps cynically, given his criticisms). “When I tell you to vote ANC,” he reportedly said, “it is because we have solutions.” 

We don’t know if anybody scoffed, but the comment of the Snake Park informal settlement resident was telling. “The service delivery is not that good,” she began. “We hope that the ANC will give us better service delivery this time round.” But nostalgia evidently clinched it, for she went on: “I am inspired by Thabo Mbeki. He is my role model.” 

It’s not obvious that 30 years of political and economic freedom have provided demonstrably trustworthy incentives to people to want more than they can be reliably certain of.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.