SONA 2023 – The state of disrepair leaves little room for optimism

It is difficult to get excited about any State of the Nation Address, especially if you are living in this nation this week. It’s got so bad that certain people in certain quarters are asking if things weren’t better under apartheid. That’s a sentiment that should have the founding fathers (and mothers) of this new democracy spinning in their graves, for the rest of us, it really is a WTF moment.

The phenomenon seems to have started, in all places, in the dusty townships and failing towns in North West, in what was once Bophuthatswana. People, who as always should have known better, started speaking about how clean the roads were, how things worked and how there were jobs.

It’s a particular piece of historic revisionism that is matched in its ghastliness only by the increasing phenomenon of 55 – 70 year old white South African men, cradling triple brandy and cokes on their paunches reminiscing about the ‘good days’ during conscription, airbrushing the terror of sleepless nights, endless inspections and puking their guts out on the parade ground after a 2,4km run with ‘staaldak, webbing en geweer’.

It’s not really surprising, though. Fans of Benito Mussolini used to speak with admiration about how the trains used to run on time, likewise fans of Paul Kagame speak with wonder of Africa’s Switzerland and how clean Kigali is compared to Kinshasa.

The people who bought into the mythology of the Rainbow Nation and a Better Life for All never got the government they were promised – and now they’re getting even less. Power cuts are starting to eat into the sinew of society; economic growth is down, crime is up. In Johannesburg, it’s most visible in the number of broken traffic lights (or robots) that simply lie at the roadside where they have either been crashed into by drunk motorists or just vandalised.

The cruellest irony of all, is to watch them silently blink their signals into the grass verges or the tar, when there actually is electricity for them to operate. It’s another sign of a city in terrible disrepair – that cuts to the quick of even the most hardened Pollyanna. A journey to Joburg’s CBD makes the movie District 9, which was shot there in 2009less science fiction horror and actually aspirational.

Is the decline terminal? It’s difficult to answer that with optimism when some of the key MMC positions in this massive metropolis are being filled by politicians from minuscule parties, for whom naked opportunism is the kindest description.

What will happen in 2024? Coalitions are a nightmare and a one-way ticket in the race to the bottom in municipalities at the moment, just how bad will it be at national government level? Or is the ANC already effectively a coalition between all the smallanyana skeletons and factions, which is why the president can’t even use his prerogative to shuffle his own cabinet?

Will voters just say, fuck it, and go for the Mangope, the Kagame or the Mussolini option just to get trains to actually run (never mind on time) and the traffic lights to work?

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 11 February 2023.