A broad disenchantment with South Africa's new society has been seeping into the national consciousness. That's not new. What is remarkable, however, is how pervasive this toxic seepage now is, and how it is poisoning the national mood.
Again and again, one is struck by the dismay of those who so recently greeted the rainbow nation with euphoria. Now they despair at the murky tide of corruption, avarice, graft and ineptitude that seems to have washed away all their great expectations.
My own attention was drawn to this, again, recently, when the following quote dropped into my email inbox:
"You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it."
In these words the late American evangelist Adrian Rogers distils the notion that national development is not a zero-sum game: you cannot improve the lot of the poor by that which you take away from the rich. Put another way: if you try to redistribute wealth without first creating new wealth to distribute, you're asking for trouble. History will still show this to be the ANC government's fatal error.
But the friend who sent me the email was making a point of a different kind. He meant to draw my attention to the fact that these were the kinds of thoughts now circulating among those people - many of them white and liberal-minded - who had, in various ways, agitated for the a new deal in South Africa ... who had welcomed its arrival ... and who had thrown themselves with gusto into making the new society work.
That enthusiasm has slowly died out. We've all seen it happening. What's new is the realisation that attached to it was belief in the new order, which was sucked away by the ebbing enthusiasm. And the waning belief has taken with it any realistic hope for some kind of revival.
This is a very bad place for a nation to be. For a few days, though, I wondered if the sickness of the national heart might not appear less serious if one took into account that it is suffered most by those, as above, who are mainly white and liberal-minded - those who have failed to convince their fellow, black South Africans that their objections to the old racial order were ever as intensely felt and expressed as their gripes with the new order.
As it turned out, there was no refuge in that thought. Only days later I read a report of two prominent speakers at a ceremony commemorating two activists who had lost their lives in the struggle against apartheid, at Athlone, Cape Town. The first speaker, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said the government was stamped by greed and corruption. "There is something wrong that is happening in this country. That is not what we struggled for," he said.
We all know that the ebullient Archbishop, a living national institution and a national treasure, has remained outspoken, refusing to be either intimidated or seduced by the people he helped into power. One senses, though, that as he sees his salvos fall uselessly short of the ramparts of power, his frustration is growing and his speech is becoming saltier.
The next speaker was Trevor Manuel, former Minister of Finance and now styled as Minister in the Presidency. Given who he is, and where he is, one might have expected him to strike a counterbalance to the Archbishop's stridency.
Not at all. He continued in similar vein. He spoke nostalgically of the noble goals of the struggle. Then he said: "How did we traverse from that point to where this country finds itself?
I turned from that report, sobered and pensive. I picked up some long-delayed filing on my desk. Among the papers was a printout saying the deputy health minister, Dr Molefi Sefularo, had told a health advocacy group that South Africa was failing on the most basic international measures of poverty and healthcare.
Then, in the Sowetan, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya chronicled his unhappy conversion, in respect of South Africa, from Afro-optimist to Afro-pessimist.
So, no, it's not a sickness of white liberals. Might it be, then, chiefly a melancholia of the intelligentsia, a group quick to climb the heights of idealism ... and just as quick to fall from them?
No, it's not that either. Listen to the townships. They resound with the embittered voices of those who feel they have been trampled and forgotten. There, patience has gone down the same dispiriting drain that sucked away enthusiasm and hope. The anger of the shanties and the litter-strewn, dusty streets is back, and so are the cops with guns.
The new malaise is bigger than just the liberals, just the intelligentsia, and just the townships. They are all part of it but its sum is bigger than its parts. To me, all the hallmarks of a nation that has lost faith in itself are here.
In When Mandela Goes, my 1997 attempt to look down the road of SA's future, my view rested on the expectation that the new government would become a disconnected elite, a bourgeoisie, that would effectively disregard the poor, the jobless, the homeless and the sick - the masses, in short, that had put the struggle nomenclatura into power. To say that then was a political blasphemy. Sadly, it is now just a commonplace. Even the government agrees, now.
The question is: what happens next?
One of two courses seems likely:
- Resignation: people feel there is no point in trying, and the collective mood of the nation submits to continued decay and decline.
- Recoil: the situation produces its own antidote. The collective mood revolts and a voice or movement comes to the fore, and a process of renewal kicks in. (This is not an uncommon historical dynamic and it could easily come into play here.)