South Africa: A tale of two countries

South Africa is a glorious tourist destination, as long as you keep your head on a swivel and watch out for the many, many scams. But it all seems to be teetering.

 Mansions, barbed wire and trash in Cape Town  (photo credit: CAMILLA BUTCHINS)
Mansions, barbed wire and trash in Cape Town
(photo credit: CAMILLA BUTCHINS)

Disclaimer: This article is in no way whatsoever intended as a comparison between South Africa and Israel, where my wife and I have lived for the past 35 years. It is not intended to encourage anybody to leave South Africa; neither is it intended to encourage anybody to make aliyah – it is merely a combination of comments and attitudes gleaned from family and friends; a look at the land I once called home and which I view today with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

I started writing this in a snug little B&B in Sea Point, Cape Town, in the darkness of load shedding (pre-planned electricity outages), the second one of the day. It was due to last just over two hours, or so the daily SMS schedule predicted.

Fortunately, I have an illuminated keyboard so I could see what I was typing. But my laptop was running on a small portable charger which had only about two bars left. Why is this of any interest to any reader? Because this is the story of South Africa on the threshold of 2023. A South Africa which, judged simply by the majestic mountains of the Western Cape soaring from the crashing surf; by the beautiful rolling hills, rivers and forests of the KZN-Natal Midlands; and the broad plains of the provinces formerly known as the Free State and the Transvaal, is as magnificent, as beautiful, as glorious as it has ever been. That is, until you scratch the surface – even the merest scratch – and the stench of corruption, lies, theft, immorality, exploitation, vice and downright incompetence seeps up through the cracks to the seemingly civilized surface. A story of two countries: South Africa the prosperous, and South Africa the destitute.

A casual traveler taking a purely superficial view of today’s South Africa would be puzzled by the constant horror stories emerging from this tragic country. Stories of kidnappings, daylight robberies, car hijackings, farm murders, dilapidated infrastructure. Because such a superficial view, a view of modern shopping malls teeming with shoppers of all hues and cultures, representing the Rainbow Nation – as South Africans are fond of calling their now ostensibly free country – the number of sleek new cars on the roads, the beautiful homes (if one ignores the barbed wire electrified fences), would have that traveler bewilderedly asking: “What’s the problem?” Indeed: When one sees the good-naturedness of shop assistants, the apparent easy integration of all races, it’s difficult to give credence to the negativity lurking beneath the surface. But lurk it does, like the bogeyman of our childhood under the bed.

The problem is that those cheerful consumers and workers represent about 10 percent of South Africa’s population, most recently numbered at 60+ million. The affluent strata of society which has managed to keep its collective head slightly above the rapidly rising sewage into which South Africa is precipitously sliding. Does that sound somewhat harsh? Well, yes it is. Purposely, and from all I have read, heard and learned from family and friends during our recent month-long family trip, accurately so.

 Beautiful Johannesburg buildings... with no electricity. (credit: Larry Butchins) Beautiful Johannesburg buildings... with no electricity. (credit: Larry Butchins)

Today’s South Africa, almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century, probably has less working infrastructure and functioning economy than it did 100 years ago. Its power company, ESKOM, now 100 years old and once the envy of the entire continent, was in the past hailed as “the world’s best power company.” 

In 2017 it was touted as the biggest threat to SA’s economy. The managing director, Andre de Ruyter, quit in mid-December in disgust (or was fired for “incompetence” if his bosses – the government – are to be believed). There is now also talk of an assassination attempt against him, although this is still “under investigation.”

De Ruyter took the reins at ESKOM in January 2020, with a proclaimed objective of getting to the bottom of corruption, theft and incompetence, which in 2022 alone was – he claimed – responsible for more than 200 days of power cuts. That means no power at all: businesses cannot function; public safety is jeopardized – no streetlights, no traffic lights; food is served cold; and the economy goes into free fall.

ESKOM is totally unable to buy the diesel fuel needed to power its plants. This massive conglomerate – once one of the giants of energy production on the continent – has no money to buy fuel. That is more than alarming: it’s terrifying. More so, considering the situation at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International Airport in late December when all internal flights were grounded because there was only one tanker available with any aircraft fuel.

How did this energy giant become a frightened, cowering mouse? Corruption, greed, graft, the power of the cartels. This is what I learned, just by questioning ordinary people, listening to their complaints, their opinions, their viewpoints, and watching what was going on.

How did South Africa get this way?

To understand the environment in which this was allowed to happen (and according to many, in which the ANC [African National Congress political party] has been complicit in fostering), one just needs to take a journey on the main road between Durban and Johannesburg, the N3. From the moment we left Durban, heading for our destination in the Midlands, just over 100 kilometers away, one lane of the three-lane highway was blocked the entire way by heavy-duty trucks. Hundreds – no thousands – of long-haul vehicles, moving at a snail’s pace, slowing down other traffic and wasting hard-to-come-by expensive fuel. Why? Durban is the primary port and closest to Johannesburg (about 600 kms); but the South African Railways, which was once the main mover of goods along this route, has been reduced to a non-functioning, rotting shell of itself.

So importers, manufacturers, traders, turn to road transportation – and this is laid wide open to corruption and theft. I was told that any truck driver/owner who does not “pay his dues” – financially or otherwise – to the trucking cartels will not be able to operate and may suffer even a worse fate than just having his truck standing idle at the side of the highway for hours or days. Stay with me now: One of the methods of “paying dues,” I was told, is allowing a truck load of coal being delivered to an ESKOM power station to be half loaded with rocks. As the truck goes over the weigh bridge, it registers the “correct” weight, and the load is delivered to the turbines, which very soon break down because of the rocks. When something is broken, you call in contractors to fix it...and the contractors are in league with the truckers, who are in league with the turbine operators... Get the picture? Thus the entire rotten circle perpetuates itself, leading to the disastrous energy situation – dilapidated power stations, load shedding, a completely broken system. And that’s just one cited example.

But for a moment, let’s try to put the macro problems to one side. Let’s bring this down to the everyday level of ordinary people. Our closest friends and family living through this half-existence: a middle-class life in middle-class suburbs, with beautiful homes, swimming pools, new cars, house staff – all enclosed within massive, electrified security fences and double gates, with armed guards patrolling the streets.

In an effort to alleviate the effects of load shedding, most of them have installed expensive generators that kick in within a minute or so of the main power going down. This gives them enough juice to live through the next two hours (and the countless blackouts beyond that) without having to worry too much about lighting, TV, Internet, appliances and home security.

But try as they might, they cannot totally escape the effects. How could 10 hours without electricity, as experienced in Cape Town earlier in January, not affect you? 

How could driving through Johannesburg’s dilapidated and potholed streets at midnight, with not a single light in sight, with almost every intersection’s traffic lights bent out of shape through accidents and lack of maintenance, not affect you?

South Africans are resilient, apparently believing that there is not much they can do and that their hardiness can get them through. But billionaire entrepreneur and outspoken government critic Rob Hersov believes there is something South Africans can do. With his rallying cry “Voetsek ANC,” [“Get lost, ANC”] he is leading the charge against getting the ANC thrown out of power in the next elections in May 2024.

He lays the blame for South Africa’s malaise squarely at the ANC’s doorstep. In a recent TV interview on GrootFM TV4, he stated quite openly that these problems are unfixable unless the ANC is deposed.

“The ANC only knows how to break and steal – they don’t know how to build and develop. The ANC wants to keep people poor, keep people out of jobs, keep them uneducated, so they can bribe them to vote for the ANC. It’s the most evil, corrupt system imaginable...” 

“The ANC only knows how to break and steal – they don’t know how to build and develop. The ANC wants to keep people poor, keep people out of jobs, keep them uneducated, so they can bribe them to vote for the ANC. It’s the most evil, corrupt system imaginable...”

Rob Hersov

He goes on in much more depth, but he lays the problem bare. One direction to a solution? Get the ANC thrown out of power. ”South Africans must get off their butts and protest, shout ‘Enough is enough!’” he declares.

In Johannesburg, my wife and I stayed in a modern gated community some 20 kilometers beyond the main suburbs. A beautiful cottage, safe, secure, well maintained (private enterprise does look after its own). Expensive (in South African terms), but dark! We didn’t drive in Johannesburg, although we had planned to rent a car. Instead, we took Ubers everywhere, and I was so thankful that I didn’t have to negotiate these scary streets. All the Uber drivers we used were young black guys, intent on earning money; with clean, modern cars, all polite, helpful, safe, service-oriented...and very interesting. I’ve always maintained that if you want to get to know something about a country or city, ask a taxi driver. These are grass-roots attitudes, coming from black mini-entrepreneurs, and this is a compilation of many of the comments we heard:

“The ANC must go – they have ruined the country with corruption and crime.” 

“We blacks only know how to party; we don’t know how to work.”

“The pass rate at school is 30 percent. What an insult to my child to tell him that he only needs 30 percent to advance – and only 50 percent to enter university.”

“Unemployment is at 50 percent. Not everybody can be an Uber driver...Do you know how many young girls I have as passengers going to some old guy’s house for the evening? It’s a scandal...but they have to earn money somehow.”

...And so on and on and on...comments from black South Africans. So maybe there is some light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

 Sea Point, Beach front, Cape Town: Everybody is ‘semigrating’ here  (credit: Larry Butchins) Sea Point, Beach front, Cape Town: Everybody is ‘semigrating’ here (credit: Larry Butchins)

Is apartheid over in South Africa, truly over? Or has it just acquired different masters?

Only has to see things through the eyes of a child to get a kick in the gut. Our seven-year-old grandson quietly asked his mother: “Mommy, why are all the shop workers and waiters black? Is it a law...?” Oy. Almost, my boy. Almost. Which leads us directly into a look at the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy, BEE, described by many as “the most disastrous policy ever implemented in SA.”

BEE was initially devised to advance economic transformation and enhance the economic participation of African, Coloured and Indian South Africans. The original principles of BEE were laudable: According to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, it was meant to provide all people in South Africa the right to equality and equal treatment. Wonderful. Except that, in the opinion of almost everybody I spoke to, it has completely backfired and is one of the main reasons that South Africa is crumbling. The revolution is always betrayed.

BEE, I was told, ensures that blacks are promoted and appointed beyond their level of incompetency – remember the Peter Principle? It is cited as one of the main reasons that South African Airways, once one of the best airlines in the world, had to be bailed out to the tune of more than R30 billion ($1.7 billion) after more than a decade of financial mismanagement.

The workforce was reduced from about 4,700 to about 1,000. One of the culprits, I was told, was Dudu Myeni, a former primary school teacher and alleged “close friend” of former president Jacob Zuma. It is said that “...under her leadership, SAA sank deeper into the quagmire and went through billions of rands of taxpayers’ funds...”

And because of BEE, young whites are leaving the country in droves, escaping from new corporate policies adhering to the BEE principles. One such example was the leaked moratorium from national pharmacy chain Dis-Chem CEO Ivan Saltzman, banning the hiring of new white staff and promotion of existing white staff.

This resulted in massive protests throughout the country as people accused Dis-Chem of pure and simple racism: “What if they had issued a letter stating that no blacks were to be employed; or no Indians or Jews... can you imagine the outcry?” commented one of my acquaintances.“Forget the excuses, backtracking and the apologetics – it’s pure racism. This is BEE at work!””

Dis-Chem was not the only company adopting such policies. It was also the motivating factor prompting my niece – a brilliant young actuary – to resign from her large global firm in Johannesburg and pack up and leave for Ireland. She not only found a great job very quickly but also a large ex-pat South African community, all apparently escaping from what they regard as reverse apartheid.

But enough ranting – because I’m conscious that this is what it’s beginning to sound like. Let me hasten to add that many of our close friends and family appear to live extremely well. While they all acknowledge that “something is very rotten in the state...” they love their South African lifestyle. And what’s not to love? Especially for those who have “semigrated” – the term coined for internal emigration from Johannesburg and other places – to the Cape. Cape Town is an exception in today’s South Africa. First of all, it is run by the DA, the Democratic Alliance, and not the ANC, which already puts it leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the country. While it still has its myriad of problems, with crime at the top of the list, it is quite the most glorious city and region in the world.

I do not say this lightly. Mountains thrusting up from the golden sands; forests, rivers, valleys; luscious vineyards (and luscious wine); fruit farms; beautiful rural coastal towns; breathtaking scenery; and a laid-back lifestyle...difficult to contest. But then the question arises: “Now, if only we could get rid of the government...”

A somewhat fanciful yet probably impractical alternative concept is making the rounds: “Why doesn’t the Western Cape just declare independence? We could be immediately self-sufficient from tourism, wine and fruit exports, a thriving film industry, hi-tech...” The city has even conjectured the idea of running its own police force, distinct from the ineffectual South African Police. As reported in Business Tech earlier last year: “Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis has laid out the city’s plans to boost its police force and extend its powers to investigate and convict criminals.”

Speaking at the city council in August 2022, Hill-Lewis said that the national South African Police Service (SAPS) has a woeful conviction rate, and the national Department of Police – led by minister Bheki Cele – has left the province under-resourced to deal with crime.

Would such a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) be practical? Be tolerated? Quite probably not, but it’s a really tempting romantic idea, nonetheless. Rob Hersov again: “The Western Cape could be self-sufficient energy-wise almost overnight!”

As just one small example of how the Western Cape government is trying to deal with problems, take a look at the state of the city’s streets: in good repair (generally) and mostly clean. I was intrigued to notice a six-man crew of street sweepers busy early one morning outside our Sea Point apartment. They were all in bright blue uniforms, under command of a leader, all working hard and efficiently. I was later told that this was an initiative by the Cape Town City Council to put homeless individuals to work. They take them off the streets and out of the squatter camps (and let’s not fool ourselves, there are many in and around Cape Town), give them a hearty breakfast, then set them to work, pay them and allow them to come back for more. A perfect example of giving people the dignity of work, reward for fulfilling a civic duty, and everyone benefits.

Make no mistake. As I stated earlier, South Africa is a glorious tourist destination, as long as you keep your head on a swivel and watch out for the many, many scams – to which I personally fell victim, having had two credit cards stolen under my nose (another story for another time). With the state of the rand – five rand to one shekel; 17 rand to one dollar; 18 rand to one euro; and 21 rand to one pound – one can have a glorious holiday for very little money. The restaurants are wonderful, the service is outstanding, the wine... Need I say more? Quality is high, shop assistants are helpful, and the vistas are magnificent.

But it all seems to be teetering. It’s all too good to be true and it’s truly tragic, viewing all this positivity that would be available in abundance were it handled correctly. Imagining the enormous resources just waiting to be put to proper use and contemplating the massive human potential of this tragically abused country brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. This could be the most magnificent country in the world. The most magnificent. I only hope it is not too late.  ■

© 2023 Larry Butchins. The author is a former South African journalist who worked in daily and weekly newspapers during the 1970s, the peak years of apartheid. He made aliyah with his family in 1987 and has been involved in marketing writing, content development and screen writing. His novel, Train in the Distance, published in 2018, is based on his experiences as a journalist during apartheid and the First Intifada in Israel in the 1990s.