Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/MICHAEL PINYANA
Picture: DAILY DISPATCH/MICHAEL PINYANA

We have now officially entered the Twilight Zone. Back in the physical world we came from, any head of a government reporting record unemployment levels of 34.9% (call it 35%) — 46.6% with people who have given up even bothering to find a job — would be offering his resignation and our parliament would be voting for a general election on Wednesday, February 2 2022.

But up here in Noconsequenceland, the president is making a state visit to Nigeria. Parliament, while officially “sitting”, goes on holiday next Friday and won’t be back before the end of January. And life goes on. If you have a job and some money, you’re okay. If you’re unemployed or poor or old or sick, you’re well and truly buggered.

Normally, governments simply don’t survive jobless numbers like these. Ours does. Or, put another way, our people are endlessly patient. It is, partly, apartheid’s parting gift, this patience. It means that almost anything is better than being treated like you were less than human.

Still, what happens now? People warn of another explosion of violence in KwaZulu-Natal. The province has its challenges (and if I were in any SA government I’d start building road and rail corridors from the Vaal Triangle to East London and Nelson Mandela Bay today), but with poverty this widespread and hope of a sound economic solution from any serious political party so distant, you’d be nuts not to expect increases in crime and possibly violence.

People have nothing to eat and the state is out of ideas. I was talking to a friend the other day and he had listened to a podcast I did with former Goldman Sachs SA chief Colin Coleman. It was, he said, a sad experience because while we were talking about how to fix this and how to fix that, the fact is that no-one in government is listening any more.

There’s almost no point to economic debate. On my desk sits a truly outstanding paper, written in late 2019, by the former head of the budget office in the Treasury, Michael Sachs, on how far gone the state is, and how serious our fiscal crisis is. I’ll bet no-one in the cabinet has read it, President Cyril Ramaphosa included.

There will be no changes in policy. From the Left demanding a basic income grant and stimulus to the Right demanding a loosening of labour legislation — to the ANC, it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The government can’t hear and won’t hear.

However, if there is any silver lining to that cloud, it lies in the outcome of the recent local government elections. Not because the DA now theoretically controls more big metros, but because of the wide agreement that led to that. From the DA to the EFF, there’s a conviction that whatever is happening to our economy or our health or in our working lives, the one thing we can all do to improve the country, to pull us out of our relentless decline, is to get the ANC out of office.

I have to agree. The ANC has just got to go. No ifs and no buts. Despite the many kind, thoughtful and generous people in it, and my own affection for Ramaphosa, the ANC is hopeless at just about everything and, but for a few sterling individuals, it always has been. Bring on the elections in 2024. Near 50% unemployment at the expanded level by then will see it crash well below half the vote. If the opposition parties do to the ANC what they did to it in November, they’ll consign it to the wilderness and it’ll never be quite the same again.

We all need renewal. In the absence of the ANC smothering our politics like a blob of treacle, all the old fights will break out again. Trade-offs will have to be made. Right now, we are literally going nowhere and something has to give. My labour laws for your basic income grant. Your localisation for my imports.

We’ll survive. There are lots of super-smart people here. Hell, Aspen, in Nelson Mandela Bay, is about to start manufacturing a Covid-19 vaccine under its own name after reaching a licensing agreement in principle with Johnson & Johnson. It’s a big deal. Some people will see it only in political terms (African vaccines for African arms, if that’s your thing). Others will wonder how much money there is to make out of it.

You need lots of points of view in any grown-up society. It isn’t the best vaccine on the market and Africa will soon be swamped with better ones. But it’ll be ours and you have to start somewhere. Perhaps trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel will start levying stiff duties on the vaccines we have to import. He is working on a pharmaceuticals master plan right now, you can be sure. Aspen will be looked after.

I guess that’s the most disappointing thing about the ANC — how easily it blended in with the back-scratching establishment and then became the establishment, and how easily it now looks away from the corruption and devastation of small towns and lives and big infrastructure on the way — as if it was all someone else’s doing.

Obviously you cannot reinvent the common laws of economics, and thank goodness inflation is on the rise again to remind us what a horrific poison it is. But even for sworn political enemies across the opposition divides, with the ANC out of the way there’s still, potentially, a better country to build here.

• Bruce is a former editor of Business Day and the Financial Mail.

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