Apples, drought & democracy

Posted on November 5, 2017


South Africa has certainly had many wake-up calls about the economic, social and political mess that the country is in. They have come through good investigative journalism and also through honest reports produced by official sources. The past week was certainly no exception.

After further revelations about the gangster coterie that has so much influence in the affairs of state came the latest quarterly labour force figures. There was little hope in these, despite the fact that, quarter on quarter, there had been little change: worse was on its way as a parliamentary committee was informed.

Parliament heard that, because of drought, up to 50 000 farmworkers in the Western Cape were likely to lose their jobs. By then, I already had an inkling of what was coming. It arrived in the form of a large box of apples delivered to my door with a message that made me both angry and close to tears.

The apples came from a farm near Ceres where I was told “the dams are dry, the land is cracked and the trees are dying. There will be no new plantings.” The fruit had to be harvested in such quantities there was too much to market and so these – and others – were gifted. Looking sombre my friend noted that 40 farmworkers had already been laid off.

Then came the news about the 50 000. The economic and social consequences are horrific to contemplate. But I am particularly angry because it is a disaster that need not have happened.

I say this confidently because the potential for this tragedy was known about for more than 20 years. I am no prophet. I am a journalist and try to bring facts to the notice of the public and our proclaimed leaders. They, in turn, are supposedly duty bound to keep us informed and to act responsibly in our interests.

They have not. For example, in July 1993 I reported what was already an established fact: “South African urban centres such as Cape Town… are running short of water although built alongside one of the largest aquifers in the country. But this vast underground supply has become badly polluted by years of uncontrolled settlement.”

This was at the start of a much greater influx of population and an awareness of changing weather patterns. I was not alone. There were other reports too about possible solutions, even such as towing breakaway icebergs from Antarctica into Gordons Bay sputh-east of Cape Town.

However, successive administrations did nothing about it. And the public was generally unaware – uninformed – about the extent of the problem and what might be done to avert future disaster. The media, by and large, but with a few notable exceptions, remained largely oblivious.

Yet, as a veteran trade unionist pointed out to me this week: when the public is informed and acts in concert, things can be changed. She pointed to the massive demonstrations that stopped the Secrecy Bill – the Protection of State Information Bill of 2013 – that had been approved by Parliament’s ANC majority and awaited only the president’s signature.

Had that Bill become law it is unlikely that the latest revelations about corruption and the capture of state institutions by an effective gangster cabal would have come to light in so public a manner. In response to this grotesque distortion of the institutions of South Africa’s constitutional democracy, some trade unionists — most prominently Zwelinzima Vavi of the SA Federation of Trade Unions— have called for “mass mobilisation”.

But to what end? To use that crude, but appropriate, South African expression, the majority of the country is already “gatvol” with what has been going on. Large protests could doubtless be organised, but would surely only be worthwhile if there was a specific object that could be achieved.

Getting rid of one president, changing Tweedledum for Tweedledee, hardly qualifies to get us out of the deep hole, economically, socially and politically in which we have been dug. Mass mobilisation in such circumstances could simply be used as a “safety valve”, a case of “marching them up to the top of the hill, and marching them down again”.

Reliable, accurate, information therefore becomes vital. So support must be given to those media workers and groups who are truly functioning as the eyes and ears of the public. Educated by, and armed with, such information there can be useful debates – sorting wheat from chaff – about goals and policies.

Trade unions, religious communities, civic and human rights groups should take on board the facts, weigh proposed policies and prospects to find a true common purpose. With clear objectives, mass mobilisation then makes sense. But it must be for thoroughgoing democratic transformation, right across the board.

It will be a tough battle. It will be messy. But it could lead to really radical change, to giving “the people” real power through some form of direct democracy; to the egalitarian society envisaged in the Bill of Rights that could once again make South Africa something of a beacon of hope in a world of increasing gloom.

I still look forward to such a day, a day when I will not have to consider that I and my neighbours may have shared the last apples from a Ceres farm.