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Where's the Sense in South Africa?
[Opinion] Education, water, roads, electricity, health and police services all in crisis
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-02-18 05:02 (KST)   
Hardly a week goes by in South Africa without a major newspaper trumpeting a new and alarming crisis. The most recent is that South Africa's road network is in ruins. But perhaps even more alarmingly is a counter-trend of positivism in the face of all this "negativity." E-mails are circulated encouraging South Africans to "spot the opportunities" and "find ways to profit" a la The Secret.

An abandoned mansion in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Northcliff.
©2008 Nick van der Leek
The danger in being dismissive of, for example, a state-run institution's inability to provide basic services is that one runs the real risk of never solving or even understanding the problem to begin with. South Africans are notorious for remaining cocooned in their communities, for not stepping out and stepping up as a forceful voice of solidarity. In South Africa the buck never stops and neither does the blaming.

An example is Eskom's failure to meet the electricity needs of the nation, causing mines to shut down, which sent the platinum price (South Africa is the world's leading producer) rocketing to close to $2,000 -- a new all time record. Other metal prices have followed suit, including gold.

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One of the reasons given for Eskom's failure to maintain electricity supplies is their inability to get their hands on enough truckloads of coal. Given that South Africa has the world's fifth largest coal resources, supply shouldn't be a problem. So how did this happen?

A Black Economic Empowerment company was allocated the task of trucking coal to the power plants. The BEE company outsourced the project to another company but took a large cut in the allocated budget -- for themselves. The outsourcing company found that they weren't able to transport coal and break even, so they eventually stopped doing so.

Now Eskom has to buy coal at export prices, find a new way to deliver large quantities of the stuff over a short period, transferring these costs to the consumer. The consumer meanwhile intends to remain "positive," which suits the BEE company that indirectly brokered the whole mess to begin with. Coal supplies have doubled since last year, increasing at a faster rate than the prices of crude oil.

It's an interesting conundrum: electricity is needed to power the mines, and coal from local mines is needed to power the electricity plants.

South Africa's police commissioner (and also the head of Interpol) has been arrested for corruption and obstruction of justice. He is believed to have links to organized crime in the country. Even so, Commissioner Jackie Selebi's picture still hangs in police stations nationwide, not because he is a wanted man (ostensibly), but because he is/was the head of law enforcement in the country.

Since Selebi's arrest the Scorpions, the nation's top anticorruption unit has been disbanded (the announcement was recently announced in parliament to disturbingly loud cheers). Almost all South Africans were aghast at this; a poll during a news bulletin on national TV broadcaster e.TV received 33,000 messages via cell phone, with 95 percent voting against the disbanding of this special crime-fighting unit. Many believe they were doing their job too well, exposing corrupt activities from the incumbent African National Congress Party president to the police commissioner himself, and generally being able to secure a high level of prosecutions.

The apparently safe and leafy suburbs of South Africa's largest city, Johannesurg, betray a harsher reality.
©2008 Nick van der Leek
Meanwhile, corporate collusion has meant artificially high prices for bread, milk and even medicines. South Africans are also forced to pay some of the highest rates in the world for Internet connections and cell phone services; this despite the fact that the number of people living on under a dollar a day has doubled since the 1994 elections. South Africans on average are simply not wealthy enough to be able to afford the highest tariffs in the world for unexceptional, fairly low-speed Internet connections. Yet local consumers remain passive.

Recently the mood in South Africa has dimmed: the media has given a lot of coverage to an 18-year-old girl, a star student, who had been shot numerous times and paralyzed, apparently by attackers who had seen them in the house and "came back later to get them." Razelle Botha said she was surprised she was shot because she had smiled at her attacker and told him she would be cooperative.

Twelve-year-old Emily Williams was hit by a stray bullet in broad daylight during a suburban shootout between criminals and security guards. There are concerns that blackouts will lead to increased crime as alarm systems and perimeter fencing (electrified) are no longer able to operate.

Even in South African sport -- from rugby, to cricket, to football, to athletics, to swimming, to cycling (here I refer to my personal experience with Cycling South Africa) to hockey -- there is a great deal of bickering, politicking and posturing.

The emphasis appears to be on personal agendas rather than on performance. There does not appear to be a genuine interest in promoting sport, enabling talents to participate. Rather, officials seem more interested in trumpeting their personal schemes on players and sportsmen and women.

The word "transformation" is used a great deal, where officials and administrators set quotas and expect a certain number of black players to be chosen even though this might not be in the interests of the team, or in some cases, arguably, the country

The same standards are echoed in job recruiting -- transformation at the expense of delivery. The result is a gradual slip in standards, performance and overall accountability. If no one is doing their job, and people are reduced to tokens in an office or on a field, who can be blamed when systems break down?

City skyline: entrophy appears to be catching up with Africa's most energetic city.
©2008 Nick van der Leek
Perhaps most worrying of all is the overwhelming support Jacob Zuma is receiving from the majority of South Africans. In a country with the highest HIV prevalence in the world, the most likely candidate for president was accused of raping an HIV positive woman. As a precaution, he said he showered afterward.

Zuma maintains the sex was consensual and that he used no protection even though he knew the young woman was HIV positive.

During a recent BBC interview* he was asked by Fergal Keane: "Are you crook?"

Zuma replied: "Well, I don't know, I must go to a dictionary and learn what a crook is."

Keane responded: "Somebody who takes money from other people for corrupt purposes."

Zuma: "Have I ever done so?"

Keane: "I'm asking you."

Zuma is currently being investigated and facing court dates on multiple corruption charges. The anticorruption unit that gathered evidence for these trials (known locally as the Scorpions) has since been shut down.

Citizens who do not hold corrupt leaders (in business, sports or politics) accountable cannot blame their leaders for their country's woes. South Africa's lazy complacency -- disguised as "being positive" -- is likely to cost them dearly.
*Fergal Keane interviewed Jacob Zuma for the BBC's Panorama.

For more on the writer, visit www.nickvanderleek.com.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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