A foreigner in South Africa is very likely to encounter phrases that seem rather confusing at first. In this post, I would like to introduce you to some of these phrases. I think that they are a good entry point to understanding current events in South Africa.
- State Capture
- Corruption of public officials can take place along several avenues. Someone may bribe an official to undertake a particular action. Someone may connive with a public official to embezzle public funds. In state capture, someone convinces a public official to transfer official powers into private hands. South African news was dominated by this phrase in March and April because of a scandal involving President Jacob Zuma and his friends from the business world, the Gupta brothers. Mcebisi Jonas told reporters that he had been approached by the brothers and offered the position of Finance Minister for South Africa. Since only the President can appoint a finance minister, his tale raised a lot of hackles across the country.
- Struggle Comrade
- One might think that administrative experience, public policy acumen, and charismatic leadership are the best qualifications for high office in South Africa. In fact, South Africa does not directly elect the President; instead, he or she is chosen by the party that wins control of Parliament. In the twenty years since democracy came to the country, the African National Congress has generally chosen its leaders based on their credentials from The Struggle against Apartheid. Jacob Zuma, for example, served as the ANC Chief of Intelligence after 1987. He also served time at Robben Island. In general, one can gauge the seriousness of a political crisis based on whether or not comrades from the Struggle are voicing opposition to the President.
- Black Economic Empowerment, Transformation, and Decolonization
- South Africa has considerable work to accomplish in order to overcome the historic disadvantages for the black, Indian, and Cape Coloured populations. The Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program is intended to see the broader involvement of the black population in the economic engine of the country. Sadly, the program has primarily affected a small elite of families who were well-positioned to take advantage of its benefits. “Transformation” refers to the need for historically white-dominated institutions to make room for other groups on an equal footing. Stellenbosch University, my workplace, has adopted a policy for transformation and yet has drawn considerable fire for the continued use of the Afrikaans language in some classrooms and even creating an unwelcoming environment for some students. I continue to struggle with the term “decolonization,” which argues that areas where Europeans created colonies continue to bear considerable distortions in their societies, hundreds of years later. Is academic science “colonized” because it is built upon philosophical models that were generated in Europe? Images of university students burning paintings at their campuses are horrifying to many, and yet these protests are felt necessary by some to purge universities of colonist influences. Twenty years into democracy, South African institutions continue to experience strong forces of change.
- RDP Housing
- The Reconstruction and Development Programme is intended to take on one of the thorniest challenges of today’s South Africa. How can we raise the standard of living for millions of city dwellers who currently live in unstructured townships or informal shacks? The flow of people from the impoverished countryside to the cities has guaranteed that informal housing continues to expand rather than contract. The RDP program is tasked with rapidly constructing entry-level housing for people to relocate outside these informal housing tracts. Some three million of these basic homes have been constructed in the last twenty years. A number of problems have beset these new housing tracts, though, such as being located far from existing transportation and employment infrastructure as well as people selling these homes below market value before the home has been occupied for the required eight years. As one might imagine, government officials have been accused of playing favorites with which families are assigned new housing. Just how can a state undertake a revolution in homelessness? South Africa answers by building homes.
- Service Delivery and Load Shedding
- One cannot listen to the news for long just now without hearing of significant service delivery protests. South Africa has been pushing roads as well as plumbing, electrical, and sewage services into lots of areas that were never really designed to accommodate them. The drought has added to the shortages in water services. The state of affairs in Vuwani has agitated residents badly enough that they have begun burning the schools down. This move, at least, drew considerable attention from both political leaders and the news media. The strain on infrastructure shows in many locations. I groused about my unhappiness with Telkom (which was resolved when they switched my DSL line to a newer card at the exchange), but this is a nice neighborhood for which the telecommunications service has simply aged. The infrastructure for electrical power in South Africa has shown this aging in very bad form. The winter of 2015 was characterized by scheduled blackouts throughout the country. In this case the “load shedding” was artificially induced by switching off the grids by published schedules. These losses of power, however, were highly consequential, pushing the South African economy into a contraction. President Jacob Zuma has laid down a verbose promise that load shedding will certainly not take place this winter (which starts in late June). His words, however, do not make the power infrastructure any better. As one small indicator, I see traffic lights (“robots”) that are unlit on probably one commute a month.
South Africa is now my home, and I hope for the best. This nation will have the chance to decide local elections in August. The pressure on the President has ratcheted up considerably since his dismissal of Finance Minister Nene in December. It remains to be seen whether or not discontent will lead to changes in the leadership of South Africa.