South Africans are losing out as the ANC becomes more self-serving - Business Day

6 August 2018 - Merely plodding on by turning a blind eye when crisis is staring us in the face is not an option anyone should consider a virtue today.

Michael Morris

Seventy years ago this month the very first — tentative, vaguely quixotic — application of apartheid policy was a limited measure of segregation on Cape Town’s suburban trains.

The departure was reported in August 1948 in a tone almost of surprise — as if the central plank of DF Malan’s winning election manifesto of just two-and-a-half months earlier really was just a little too farfetched to credit.

And perhaps there was a sense that it couldn’t last.

After all, the National Party had gained only a slender majority of parliamentary seats on the strength of a minority of votes — the uneven delimitation of constituencies having given it victory.

There is even a sense of administrative tentativeness in that early report on transport minister Paul Sauer’s policy move, as it consisted "merely of reserving certain first-class accommodation for Europeans only", the newspaper presuming that "this will be as far as the railways can at present go".
There was even some doubt about railway officials being able plausibly to discriminate "between those who are European and those who are not".

None of it seemed — or indeed was — rational, necessary, humane, even cost-effective, or could in any way be justified on the basis of a social good in a society which, more than at any time in its past, might instead have exploited a common national interest in a changed postwar world.

However, that’s all in the past now, and who needs to care in 2018?

The tragedy, of course, is that we have reached a similar juncture, and the penalty is very alike; it is the penalty of acquiescence that wells from a kind of incredulity, a habitual if unexamined certainty that things surely won’t turn out to be so bad.

Of course, this was not true of everybody in the first, or the later, years of apartheid, as my colleague John Kane-Berman reminded us last week in an essay on the Torch Commando of the early 1950s – by which time the gathering force of white nationalism reached well beyond fussing over passengers on first-class train carriages.

That it took SA another 40 years to regain a nearly lost sense of common national interest, however, should be a warning to us today of the needless waste that will assuredly lie ahead if we squander the hard-earned democratic dividend of the first decade after 1994.

You couldn’t wish for a better summing up than the comment made at the Institute of Race Relations’ recent annual council meeting by one of the country’s leading economists.

"Business is so negative," he said. "Their outlook is very short-term; they only see an interest in surviving until tomorrow. It’s the same reason SA doesn’t get long-term investors."

Which is why, as we learned last week, the unemployment rate worsened to 27.2% in the second quarter; the expanded rate, which includes discouraged work seekers, increasing to 37.2%, bringing the number of discouraged work seekers to 2.9-million people. And then there’s taking private property without paying for it.

There’s a lot to be said for SA’s resilience — something we have had too many opportunities in our modern history to demonstrate — but merely plodding on by turning a blind eye when crisis is staring us in the face is not an option anyone should consider a virtue today.

As my colleagues wrote recently: "There is nothing in the works by way of education, healthcare, welfare, service delivery or employment policy reform that will improve the lot of relatively poor South Africans through the medium term… We expect that the government will capitulate on … hot-button policy issues ahead of the election, choosing, again, short-term political respite over long-term reform."

We have been there before. The National Party’s own self-absorption became so chronic that even Nationalists themselves warned, according to a report at the time, that "South Africa must make drastic political changes or face disaster".

It’s no comfort that that was 30 years to the month after those first tinkering measures on Cape Town’s suburban trains.

And 1978 was a long way from the end.

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