Jan-Jan Joubert, Will South Africa be Okay?: 17 Key Questions (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2019)

THIS book has a novel approach to South Africa’s current condition: responses to the most frequently asked questions posed to political journalist Jan-Jan Joubert. Some of his opinions are very revealing; many of his remedies spot-on. But when he addresses implementation, he runs into the same brick wall of political culture as every other commentator.

Why do people continue to vote for a failed party like the ANC? Joubert points out that it has a record of delivery benefiting millions who fear gains might be lost without it. Its well-burnished struggle image is still an asset. That it has turned into a highly corrupted business is an attraction to many opportunists.

The Democratic Alliance is the country’s only multiracial party and it has a good record of grassroots community development. But the ‘shadows and echoes of South Africa’s history’ bequeath a perception problem among African voters; and its insistence on good governance is a threat to many big shots and their followers. A recent series of unbelievable blunders lost it significant Afrikaner support, while a lack of policy direction and too much internal bickering threaten further growth.

The recent upsurge of the Freedom Front Plus, a sponge for ‘rage and resentment’ that leads nowhere constructive, can be likened to Brexit. Its leader has declared the rainbow nation dead and its poster boy is the racist Steve Hofmeyr. Amusingly, Joubert likens the FF+ to a car without a silencer.

He is equally astute about Ramaphoria, pointing out that Cyril Ramaphosa served four years as quiescent deputy president to the racketeer Jacob Zuma. Relief at the ousting of the latter led to a false dawn in which the Faustian pact Ramaphosa had to make with the most sinister politicians in the ANC, Ace Magashule and David Mabuza, was ignored.  And the much-vaunted party integrity process was publicly shredded.

The author clearly has a soft spot for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFFs). Although he writes about Julius Malema’s penchant for corruption, violence and defamation, Joubert does not get to grips with the neo-fascist tendencies of the EFFs. He does, however ask why ideology that has not worked anywhere else in the world could possibly succeed in South Africa.

Whites, Joubert believes, fail to do enough listening. While he makes a valid case for Alan Paton’s liberalism, his approach to Helen Zille is sanctimonious and his advice to whites in general becomes platitudinous. Most people are decent enough, but that will not fix the nation’s impending state of collapse.

He makes a very strong case for meltdown in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC); so much so that the integrity of the 2019 general election was saved only by a political party pact among the four main contending parties. The indelible ink proved soluble and the ID link with a central voter database was absent; while many people voted twice (or more). The IEC is yet another victim of ineptitude and corruption, so future free and fair elections are in doubt. Electronic solutions will simply compound the potential for fraud. Meanwhile young South Africans are not registering or voting, arguing that ‘democracy is not working for us.’ Their obsession with social media is no alternative.

Joubert lists the usual keys to recovery. They range from abolition of the culture of non-payment and cadre deployment to a more realistic view of job creation in which wage agreements embed productivity and non-performance has real consequences. The reactionary powers of public service unions have to be culled and priority given to maintenance above vanity projects. He notes, correctly, that the ANC’s truly non-racial period was woefully short (1985–2001) and that the party is busier ‘fighting for a better past than a better future’, lacks political will, and too often reverts to the politics of distraction.

Redistribution is no substitute for long-term economic growth, which Eskom is unable to support.  State-owned enterprises cannot continue to be sites of plunder. Expropriation without compensation will undermine investor confidence. States do not create development or jobs, but rather an environment for enterprise. Race-based entitlement and tender secrecy banish initiative. These are all well-rehearsed in endless lists of national ills.

But Joubert has no more clue than anyone else how these are to be treated given deeply entrenched vested interests. ‘It really is not that difficult to understand,’ he weakly suggests. Well, clearly it is otherwise there would be positive change. He falls back on appeals to good nature and individual effort, entirely laudable but given the dire situation they are no more compelling than bumper stickers.

How ironic it is that whites argued during the days of apartheid that they were misunderstood and the world needed to treat South Africa as a special case. Now black nationalists are doing something similar, maintaining that global norms do not apply.

As for the question in Joubert’s title and based on his evidence; no, okay does not look at all likely.