The fabric of revolution
If there is a silver lining in South Africa's power outages it is this: for the first time in fourteen years, people are rallying and mobilizing around a cause not based on race. If that sounds like an assessment made by Pollyanna looking through rose-colored glasses to you, read on. (GW)
As South Africa celebrates 14 years of post-apartheid rule, AIDS and electricity could spark revolution By: Peter-Dirk Uys
April 23, 2008
As South Africa celebrates 14 years of post-apartheid rule, AIDS and electricity could spark revolution
By: Peter-Dirk Uys
EDITOR’S NOTE As the Republic of South Africa celebrates 14 years of democracy this Sunday, April 27, that nation is also confronting some severe growing pains. High on the list of problems is a surging demand for energy that has overwhelmed the country’s electricity supplier, Eskom, to the point where “load-shedding” (i.e., selectively turning off customers’ power) is routine. Lucrative mining operations have been periodically forced to shut down, and the country’s currency, the rand, has been in freefall.
The electricity shortage has also jeopardized South Africa’s deal with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to host the 2010 World Cup soccer championships, for which the construction of some new stadiums is already underway.
Thabo Mbeki, the South African president internationally notorious for dismissing the nation’s AIDS crisis, has been weakened by the failure of the very boom economy he fostered and will likely be succeeded by African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma (a/k/a “JZ”), himself linked to several corruption investigations. Zuma had served as deputy president until he became embroiled in a scandal involving top-ranking government officials accused of accepting (US) $8 billion in bribes from foreign companies bidding for pieces of a lucrative South African rearmament program.
South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, currently appearing in Cambridge in his one-person show Elections and Erections: A Chronicle of Fear and Fun at the ART’s Zero Arrow Street Theatre, has been a thorn in that nation’s political side since apartheid provided him with fish-in-a-barrel targets. In this exclusive essay for the Phoenix, he laments that, thanks to circumstances back in Pretoria, his career as a national critic is, for now, all too secure, even in the post-apartheid era. Still, he has hope for the future.
Damn it, I want to be optimistic. I have always seen my glass as half full and not half empty. Now I think it’s dry. I’ll check once the lights come on again.
South Africa’s government of the day has always written my best material, so perhaps this national electricity crisis is just another wonderful ploy to grab more kickbacks. (We know the recent arms deal enriched those crème de la comrades beyond their wildest dreams. That $8 billion is peanuts compared with the $100 billion needed to erect the cluster of nuclear power plants that will bring South Africa’s electricity grid back online.) No one will complain — everyone is united in their fury. “Build the power stations, Zuma!” they will demand. Before load-shedding (the politically correct alternative to the word “blackouts”), the nation would have just said: “No way, Comrade!”
As of April 27, democracy in the Republic of South Africa is 14 years old. In 1994, after centuries of darkness, the miracle happened and the lights went on once again, after apartheid made way for the formerly banned alternative. And we are still there. Except, this time thanks to incompetence, the lights are going out once more.
President Thabo Mbeki has admitted that his government got its timing wrong in terms of managing our electricity needs. (By “government,” I think he means his cabinet.) He says sorry. As if his administration merely had added too much salt to the national stew. Actually, the stew was never there. His comrades took the gravy. Now there’s no salt, either.
Is there anything here that gives hope? Facing the next eight years without confidence in our electricity grid? Forget government; it is impossible to keep small businesses going when even the mines give up. We marveled at the collapse of Zimbabwe. That took years. Our demise could take weeks.
Suddenly, it is possible that World Cup soccer bosses FIFA, the other evil empire, which has no sentiment for “the people of South Africa,” will move their 2010 commitment from what is known as “the rainbow nation” to Australia. They’ve already prepared for it.
Without power, our other attractions of rainbow appeal pale into gloom. We’ll sit with all those billion-rand unfinished soccer stadiums that cannot be adapted overnight into power stations. Like the planned concrete piss-pot in the center of eco-green Cape Town, which, though it will be inaccessible to many poor blacks, will at least be perfectly situated for TV shots with that lovely image of Table Mountain in the background.
Meanwhile, that most commercial of the world’s heritage sites, the famed “University of Robben Island” — the grim prison from which Nelson Mandela and his first democratically elected cabinet were graduated — is in trouble. (Even Jacob Zuma, our possible next president, passed through it in solitary confinement from grade five to cum laude.) This jewel in our crown now sits virtually bankrupt with $3.4 million lost due to corruption and incompetence. The Department for Arts and Culture’s aging ferry system has collapsed, leading to thousands of canceled tours (often booked months in advance) and angry foreign tourists. A spokesperson for the department passionately came to the defense of his beleaguered comrades, saying that Robben Island symbolizes what the ruling African National Congress (ANC) stands for.
Comrade? You couldn’t have said it better.
A chance to make things work
Optimism is catchy. It is a balm and a great therapy. But when does optimism become propaganda? By constantly giving our government the benefit of the doubt while logic and common sense keep banging at the panic button, we are supporting them in their carelessness and failures. Since Mbeki declared himself an enemy of his people with his inexplicable denials of the seriousness of HIV and AIDS, I have not been a fan. But I never thought I would see him dismantled by his own party in such a casual and shocking manner as he was at the December Congress of the ANC, where Zuma and his clique were elected and Thabo’s Mbekivellian Politburo — that is, Political Bureau — was kicked out. Now, Mbeki looks like the small, pathetic puppet I use on stage.
After our impending general election, in April 2009, a new chapter will have opened. Once unprotected by the office of leadership, the road to a court in the Hague on charges of genocide for Mbeki and his minister of health, with her bizarre cures for the AIDS virus, will be clear. We are losing 1000 people a day thanks to their denials. Genocide in 2008 is simply: “Ignore them and they will go away.”
Could we see the current electrical crunch in any way as a good thing? Maybe, because, for the first time, people are sharing an opinion not based on color or creed. Blacks, whites, browns, and pinks are making their voices heard without resorting to a race debate. The fact that black South Africans have, in the majority, only enjoyed electricity for the past 13 years makes their frustration and anger even more understandable. This is the fabric of revolution. Will Eskom, our official power network, be the Bastille of a future collapse of the rainbow nation? Rainbows don’t exist. It’s time to open the umbrella of opinion and go into the storm.
Since taking control of spin and gesture politics, Mbeki’s Politburo has dazzled with promises and blah-blah, enriched with quotations from Shakespeare, Woolworths, and the thesaurus. All the government departments that work well — finance, foreign affairs, defense, and tourism — are there only to enrich the top few. The rest of the government, supposedly put there by the people for the people, is in a mess. Education. Housing. Health. Welfare. Energy. Home Affairs. Environment. Transport.
Service delivery can’t happen without electricity. You can’t see the future moving in the dark. But for the first time since national freedom, rich and poor, black and white, businesses and buskers, are united in their need to find the solution that eludes government. The people will learn to lead and the government can follow.
My optimism will never be bland theatrical propaganda for bad, careless politics. I believe that we will make South Africa the country it should be. So I encourage my people not to pack for Perth to follow the soccer ball. Staying home is more fun. Our ultimate optimism is this: because of the energy crisis, we might now save the planet for tomorrow. Think of it as a unique opportunity to meet our energy needs without burning dirty coal or a dicey nuclear cocktail.
Mandela gave us that second chance. I think suddenly, out of the blue, we have a third chance to make things work. And a chance to remake our economy from one dependent on cheap power to a competitive economy based on innovation, taking responsibility for the future of the Earth, and the unique resourcefulness of all South Africans. Maybe if we see our country as half-lit and not half-dark, we still can win.
Pieter-Dirk Uys was awarded South Africa’s prestigious Truth and Reconciliation Award in 2001.