It feels oddly surreal, bordering on the insane, to be in the Coté d’Ivoire city of Abidjan, four months into our African overland journey, and to read the stories of the antics and emptiness of a SONA night back home. Its weird. Other worldly. A kinda tragedy and a farce all in one act.
South Africans are locked into a social and economic death spiral. A death spiral occasioned not just from a history of lack luster leadership or outright pillage and state capture, or racial profiling on a landscape of inequality and unemployment. Or la any of the countless other phrases that we use to describe our illness. It’s way worse than that.
South Africans have not yet come to terms with the deeper illness that binds them and blinds them. They have not yet understood what it means to be an african, or more specifically to be newly born African nation that is the bastard child of the continent. South Africans suffer from the toxic combination of an inflated ego that hides a deep identity crisis within. We look to the northern hemisphere to answer our problems in the African deep south. We distrust the continental experience beyond seeing it as a potential market to exploit and accumulate from. We have no idea of what it means to build a nation beyond our own winning a beauty contest or a rugby World Cup. We truly are the lost and arrogant children of Africa. Worse still is that we don’t even know this about ourselves. We are an egotistical and violent people. To others and to our own.
I can hear the push back coming. The talk of being the friendly ones. The caring ones. The proud ones. The ones who overcome all obstacles. The negotiation capital of the world. The rainbow nation. The peace loving ones. I can hear all that. Yet, yet it’s thin. And hollow. It borders on a lie. It’s measure of success is ourselves, our own rhetoric, our own image in the mirror. And only that. It’s a kind of self congratulatory praise singing. And it’s nowhere near the truth. At least not when viewed from the sobering distance of being immersed for months in the countless African villages and towns and cities of west Africa.
It seems to me that our truth is what we watch and hear and read about from the commentariat. It’s the tiny truth of the insiders club. That’s our small world focus. It’s the obsessive and yet deeply boring and predicable singular focus on big labour and big capital and big ANC in government. Of European look alike social compacts for the rich in the name of the poor. Of progress and development measured solely through the tinted glasses of the world bank and IMF and ratings agencies. Of a western democracy with a colorful constitution, and national flag to match, which is yet to be embedded in the ethos of the mass of ordinary outsider South Africans. Of our slavish love for mining and financial services and automotive and textile manufacturing that need tax breaks and protection and countless IPAP’s for everything else. Of apartheid spacial city planning to protect the values of the properties of the rich and to keep us looking “modern” and “western” with that sexy clean and european like look and feel. All for the insiders. For those few extremely wealthy souls that support the bulk of the tax base and who eat and party under candles, even when we not being load shedded.
It’s a hoax and it’s paper thin. And it’s not sustainable. It’s the age old trickle down economics from deals between the big three social interests. Its a trickle that will not reach the restless mass of outsides. Not in my lifetime. It’s not even remotely viable. It’s just a matter of time. It will implode. Bit by bit. It’s has already started with the implosion of state owned enterprises and the downsizing of businesses. Every macro economic indicator is heading south. Debt rising beyond revenue collection. Jobless rising. Currency weakening more and more. The capital markets flatline at best. Construction and freight industries decline. Properties lose value and will be worth virtually nothing. We are only at the beginning of the death spiral. There is a long road down. A long, long road.
As we go down we should take off our western tinted glasses. We should look at the bare face of our neighbors and beyond them across the African continent. Look deep at them. See the African villages and the towns and the cities. And in each your will see a rickety stall or collection of stalls or a sprawling market. On every street and in every country. See the way the road itself has become a market even before it is built into an asphalt road. Already the market is there. There in the dust. And in every market there are sellers of onions and tomatoes and avos and pineapples. Countless sellers of all that grows. And they are there every day. Because they have customers to service. Alongside them are the yam and peanut sellers and bread makers or chicken grillers. And the textile weavers. And the tailors. And the motor cycle mechanics and bicycle repair shops. Look deeper. This is the guts of the home market. It’s the african home market. It’s alive and it’s vibrant and it’s busy and disorderly and dirty. Its an african home market. There are customers and sellers. Everywhere. No one has a liscence to be here. The liscence they have is what everyone has. It’s not given by a government official. It ordained at birth. It’s the liscence embedded in the DNA of every person. The liscence to educate and create and grow and sell and make. Everyone honors it. Everyone does it.
Look deeper. Behind the goods and the seller. There is an african. Thousands and millions of Africans. Educated people. Proud people. People who know that their future and the future of their children depends on them. Not on government. Or even big business. Or big labour. But on them making and creating and trading and surviving. They are the rock of the home market of Africa. Don’t laugh. Don’t smirk. Learn from them. They are the bearers of all the lessons for our future in the south too.
Look into the village. Look deep into the village. See the households and homes. The ownership of the land and the village. The patterns from dawn to dusk. The simplicity of everyday life. The low carbon footprint. The children dressed for school and studying hard. The bells and the call to prayer. The sweeping mother. The pounding sister. The men and women who till their small pieces of land. The water and wood carried in to wash and cook. Just enough. No more than the days needs. Tomorrow is another day.
The land is owned or leased by the people. There is low unemployment and everyone has some land or home assets from which they can produce for themselves or their home market. On this foundation the village is an economic unit with buyers and sellers. It is the expression of the collective economic enterprise and will of the people. Every day it rises to the same tasks to be performed. The same rituals to be fulfilled. And behind it all stands an unwritten commitment, a covenant even, to educate and work and to work to educate for each other. Over and over. It’s embedded in the value system of the Africans themselves. Makes even the poorest of the poor stand proud. Hold their heads up. It’s the glue that cements the nation together. The street trader survives on street trading. The welder on welding. The tailor on sewing. The cook on cooking. And so it goes on. Each for the other. All for one. One for all. No getting ahead of the other. No falling behind the other. All rising. Slowly and painfully. But rising nonetheless. Against all odds.
I long for a bit of this Africa at home. I long for a tiny taste of the lessons from the continent in the veins of our people back home. Where our leaders start with a conversation about themselves. About who they are and what it means to be a South African. Perhaps that conversation can ask : who are we? Not as labour or capital or government agent. But as a people. What values define us ? Not the tired phrases of rainbows and resilience. But what ethos and way of being binds us. Are we truly a people of Ubuntu, as Mandela once hoped for ? And if so what does that really mean ?
You see if we are to truly build a South African nation we all have to give up a lot and be prepared to learn a lot from each other as a people. We need a new conversation about nation building and development. A conversation that is free of our caps and our agencies and our selfish interests. A conversation that starts with what we are prepared to give up, not what we want. Like land owners giving up their unfettered right to freehold ownership of land and the landless giving up the threat of occupations because they see the land being restored to the people. Like government giving up the right to regulate and police to become a facilitator of a package of new tax incentives and accelerators to fashion changed behavior for the nation. Like labour giving up the rights to regulate standards across even those businesses that are struggling and closing. Like capital giving up their right to make unfettered profits at any costs and committing to invest and share in the wealth they create with others. Bottom line is that we need to start the stakeholder conversation by putting in the table all that we own or control and the rights and interests we hold and saying: all of this is up for reshaping and sharing in ways that grow the nation and the national identity as the apex and sole right and interest. The test is not the barrow stakeholder interest or rights, but the test is how any proposal enhances the building blocks to create the South African nation, to cement its values and ethos, to grow the cake of opportunity for all.
And we need more than a stakeholder process. Much much more. We need every community and institution to mobilise South Africans to come together across the divide of the factory shop floor and the boardroom table, or the squatter camp and the polished walled home, the street trader and the retail giant, the skilled workers with the artisan and engineer and designer. We need to pull our people together across the countless divides in every household and school and place of work or worship or village or town. We need imbizos everywhere that initiate and embrace a new dialogue of who we are and what we can do for each other and how we can protect and grow one another and the nation at large. A dialogue that breaks the divides and cements the daily work and social lives of our people together. That opens up land and ownership and markets and skills and education for all. That places care and help for each other and nation building at the very centre of all economic and social and design and layout plans and activities. Everyone must be helped and a culture of hard work for the family and the nation must be instilled.
It’s a long road down. There will be plenty of doomsayers. There will be plenty of negativism and armchair critics. And there will be active opposition. To succeed we need leadership. Real steadfast and visionary leadership that is frank and honest and humble and yet, yet able to rise to the calling of the nation above any stakeholder or factional interest. A leadership that facilitates and guides and listens. And that is bold in upholding the national test as the apex test, and implementing the will of the nation and the very big changes we need to save ourselves from ourselves. We need that kind of resolved and evolved leadership. A leadership that knows that Africa is our home. Our heritage and our future. And that builds, brick by brick, a new national identity for our people to become an authentically African nation of the south. Truly African in its core. Saturated with the ethos of Ubuntu in everyday life.