Pretoria‎, South Africa
Pretoria‎, South AfricaiStock

Seventy million in a country that once mattered learn to live with the aftermath of electing wrecking crews into power.

Prognoses would fill volumes. If they are as valuable to us, the victims, as to the advice givers, the country will shortly begin to pick itself out of the trash bin.

Unfortunately it will not. The solutions we are offered are like the doctor treating your fever instead of your Covid. On TV a philanthropist explained why he could not alleviate the queues at soup kitchens run by the poor for the hungry. He gave, he said, all ten million to a department of government for its ‘public health initiatives’. As if to say, what better could he have done with the money?

True wisdom is incommunicable, the truly wise are rare. With the clever and capable South Africa is over-stocked. Corporate boardrooms teem with them. Varsity faculties and think tanks are packed with the intelligentsia to bursting point.

SAFETY - from Covid - is a contemporary god that willy nilly robbed Jews in South Africa of פַּרנָסָה meaning sustenance or a livelihood. To pray for something morning noon and night, life without it must be intolerable. Can the stomach, heart and brain come to terms with being a charity case? Can a breadwinner make peace with dependence on the lucky few who prospered from shutdowns? Take away a livelihood and you take away a life. Often not a figurative life – suicide and domestic abuse rates soar.

Yet the learned and the clever don’t ask, what is the price of worshipping SAFETY? I know of a Covid tsar, a Professor of virology, who knows everything there is to know about the Covid variants and vaccines. He cares little for a public health policy that protects the rich while it infects the poor. If you told him that the consequences of Covid are more deadly than Covid, you’d get a blank look.

To be able to see a problem whole and see it dispassionately the unwise lack the equipment. They’ll slap restrictions quicker than you can stick a plaster on a pus-filled sore. And they don’t grasp that what they do tramples legacies and wrecks dreams.

These and other well-meaning types never pick out the ‘do or die’ factor, not for lack of brain, but for want of wisdom. They’ll classify the country’s problems in order of immediate, short and long term. They’ll compete with ‘must do’ lists, which, if they knew, mark them as lazy-minded. The buzz words they employ have no clout. Corruption, inefficiency, poverty, inequalities, polarization, security failure, accountability or, laziest of all, capacity constraints, give no inkling of what to solve or how. Those are not thought provoking words but thought subduing. Where knowledge and cleverness are brought to bear, understanding is marked absent.

A good academic, Professor Adam Habib, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, is more thorough than most scholars. In his article, “South Africa’s rebellion and looting” he looked at state security as a subset of the general problems. When he brought it on it had three heads. He made points under each head, being anything but slovenly. But he kept the ‘do or die’ factor up his sleeve for last, where he covered it under a subhead, ‘state capacity.’ It looked like he had missed the boat; but no – finally he saw that it explained the collapse of South Africa.

“The challenge is not only in the security service; but across the state, attested by the complete collapse of public services. Perhaps the most graphic example was the incompetence that accompanied the vaccine roll-out, and the Covid-related deaths which could have been avoided had it not been for the incompetent (and corrupt) civil service and political class. There can be no more graphic demonstration that the real victims of state incompetence are its citizens. This is ascribed to cadre deployment.

"But equally (devastating) has been the transformation agenda ignoring the principle of meritocracy. The crude argument for this is that merit is racially encoded and should therefore be ignored when appointing the (under) qualified to public and private jobs. My own experience in (universities) suggests that (race-based) appointments are a widespread problem that needs urgent correction at multiple levels, including executive management and boards.”

Up to the last everything Habib wrote was accurate but all was useless. Like a true commentator he was going round the disease rather than to it. Until the end he lost the big picture in the detail, analysed the symptoms not the disease.

Corruption and looting are some of the symptoms; they did not cause South Africa’s descent into hell. The ‘do or die’ factor did that. The moment merit became the last consideration for filling a job, economic and social indicators headed to hell in a basket. A merit-free economy and a doomed society are wedded closer than a horse and carriage. Discard merit and you invite collapse. America is in the process of ceding the superpower throne to China as it appoints people on what they look like, for inclusivity and diversity.

How does collapse work? Suppose you have zero merits to land a plum job in a power utility. You get it on your colour of skin or gender or wokeness, or at a wink and a nod from some bigwig, who also got a position at a wink and a nod. So there you sit, taking it easy in the executive chair. What is not earned is not valued. Easy come easy go is the mother of a witch’s brew of incompetence, indolence, turpitude and brazen immorality.

If scrapping merit stopped at the public sector it could devastate society. Prescribed for the private sector it becomes catastrophic. Call it what you like: Critical Race Theory or Black Economic Empowerment or inclusivity: a zero merit system denies that looks are superficial. It asserts, doing a double loop, that only racists do not judge by appearances. And who picks up the tab? Taxpayers or shareholders.

But hell is not the end of the world. Life in a basket case country is not entirely bad. After all, how much lower can indicators head? In hell you have to deal with elements more or less stable, more or less controllable, more or less mad. Only one thing really matters – to identify what brought you to hell, and what will keep you there unless you learn how you got to hell.

Steve Apfel is an economist and costing specialist, but most of all a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction. His blog, ‘Balaam’s curse’ is followed mainly in Europe, America, Canada, S. Africa, Israel, Scandinavia and Australasia.