Four or five times in the past fortnight, in very different conversations, I have heard middle-class parents, students and young graduates talk of a future for themselves or their children that is captured in one word: emigration.
In my immediate neighbourhood, I know of several families who have already gone, or whose children, all graduates, have left to jobs overseas. In none of these cases is their departure a political statement; in all of them it is an economic one.
It is, of course, a false distinction, but one worth making if only to emphasise that a free, fair and democratic society is a basic condition of middle class success. Leavers (by definition, those with considerable wherewithal, and the skills and enterprise that enable them to find opportunity elsewhere) are typically spirited adherents of justice, equality and common citizenship.
Their despair at the narrowing scope for stability, let alone success, is precisely the result of an economy fouled by lawlessness from the highest level and bad ideas that have steadily eroded justice, equality and common citizenship. These were central to the anticipated democratic dividend of which 1994 was an authentic harbinger, but which, in 2020, has more the appearance of a false hope.
South Africans might be tempted to discount the despair of those who have left, or are leaving, on the grounds that, for all the unaffordable loss of middle class talent, skill and enterprise, once it’s gone, it’s gone.
But there’s no discounting the mounting despair of those of us who are left behind, which is probably best understood as a kind of powerlessness.
Contemplating emigration is an expression of it, and so is the enthusiasm for secessionism, the talk of embarking on a tax revolt, the anxiety among investors to get the bulk of their savings off-shore.
Hankering for solutions
Above all is the frustrated hankering for solutions. ‘You don’t need to keep telling us how bad things are, tell us what we can do about it’ is a common plea in the comments section of this site and others, on social media and in daily conversation.
The frustration arises from a sense people have that theirs is a minority preoccupation, because, if the majority shared it, change would come.
There is, perhaps, little comfort in affirming that this is true – but it does define the unavoidable task, it does tell us ‘what we can do’.
Writing on Politicsweb last week, Helen Zille observed: ‘The only way out of this mess is to understand that no democracy can make sustained economic progress without actively striving to become a meritocracy, where people are appointed to positions, or win tenders, on clear, value-adding criteria, not their colour or their political contacts.
‘And the only way we can get there is if the voters begin to understand why this is so important, and begin to vote for it. Otherwise we must stop feigning shock that the looting continues.’
A few weeks ago, scholar and columnist Jonny Steinberg wrote that South Africa’s ‘political order maintains a legitimacy the depth of which it surely does not deserve’.
He went on: ‘The wellsprings of this legitimacy are mysterious. South Africans, it seems, will put up with a lot of rough treatment before feeling compelled to rebel.’
The fact that conditions are ripe for better ideas that can deliver people from that ‘rough treatment’ is not enough without skill, courage and stamina in making the argument in ways that will first gain trust, then support. We cannot afford to be blindsided by politesse, fearing being judged impolite or disloyal, nor can we afford to be lured by nationalist enthusiasms that suggest ours is a society best understood by group interests and racial cleavages.
The biggest mistake lies in imagining that the case is hopeless and that there’s no point in making an argument for something better. South Africans are not dumb and insensible, nor are they so fixed in their ways that change is impossible.
I was reminded this week of George Orwell’s recollection of the image that triggered in his mind the metaphorical framework for his devastating critique of totalitarianism, Animal Farm.
Writing in the preface of the – of all things – Ukrainian edition of the novel in March 1947, he described how ‘details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them ….’
If South Africans, convinced to trust better ideas, can be made aware of their strength, the argument for change will succeed. But we have to make the argument, and make it well.
[Picture: Shelagh Murphy on Unsplash]