Renovate, renew, repair, restore, revive, reinvigorate:  President Cyril Ramaphosa and Secretary-General of the African National Congress, Fikile Mbalula, are flinging these verbs about as if there’s no tomorrow in an attempt to reassure us that they will make good on all that has been decimated under their watch and even, heaven forbid, revive their moribund, ideologically frozen party.  

I sincerely hope there is no tomorrow of dominant power for the ANC whether it reinvents or not. Anyone who falls for the assurances that it and its leaders can rebuild, let alone continue to manage what they destroyed, needs to have their head examined. 

The values the ANC clings to, the great vision of the National Democratic Revolution, as the Institute of Race Relations’s Anthea Jeffery has shown us, will never see us back on the path to becoming a civilised, modern country with choice, economic opportunities, and freedom for all.

In Johannesburg there has been a flurry of activity on the roads and verges of the city to ‘change the optics’ as they say in political circles, but these feeble efforts to put ‘lipstick on the pig’ to impress BRICS visitors are not fooling us cynical and jaded residents. Nor is the ‘light touch’ (pun intended)  on load shedding schedules.  

I am freshly returned from my annual holiday (and escape from a particularly dire winter) during which I visited three civilised, modern democracies with long histories. 

Seen from a distance, South Africa is in deep, deep trouble. Yet coming home was good.

A holiday outside Africa does wonders for the soul. It also cures the hyper-vigilance and high anxiety you are likely to have been suffering for some time as an ordinary resident of Johannesburg or other even less salubrious places in this mother of a country.

Unfortunately, apart from leaving your credit card in tatters, a holiday in France or Spain or even the UK also leaves you with the realisation that South Africa has fallen so far behind civilised democracies that it will probably never really catch up. 

In comparison with countries that have preserved their pasts and reaped the benefits that come of that appreciation of the past, and that continue to deliver services to all who live in them despite occasional riots and frequent strikes, South Africa is in a sad and sorry state. 

Maybe it’s because I’m a Joburger watching my city fall apart, but for the first time since my first visit to UK and Europe in 1973, I felt like a rube from the sticks as I emerged from Heathrow immigration and stepped almost immediately aboard a clean, comfortable bus.

So many choices in transport, electricity all day and night, well-maintained roads, clipped hedges, litter-free bus stations. Did I gawp at the wonder of it all? It felt like it.

My later weeks of travel included several train journeys operated by France’s state railway, SNCF,  and Eurostar in which SNCF also has a majority holding. After every journey, I gave them high ratings in the surveys they emailed me as my trips were completed. 

But every journey had a downside SNCF could do nothing about.  

Each train trip would prompt a comparison with the remnant of our own Passenger Rail Service (PRASA) which would in turn lead to thoughts of Mbalula, his Transport predecessors, and the whole Transport cadre cohort.

The irrepressible Mbalula continued to pop into my head as we sped along tracks that were wonderful for just being there, between cities, towns and villages and in “voitures” that had intact and comfortable seating, working air conditioning, WiFi, a restaurant or a bar car.

When we stepped onto the platforms of small, neat stations with a single, working and lockable toilet or huge, cosmopolitan ones, like Gare du Nord or glamorous ones like Sants Estacio in Barcelona, my mind’s eye would upload another image of Mbalula stuffed, sausage-like, in his white suit with the rail track embellishment and a flurry of pictures of our own ruined, plundered stations.

Today, the creatively renamed (a rare occurrence) Shosholoza Meyl service hardly exists any more in South Africa. Most of its carriages lie derelict. Only a couple of routes are operational. The website is barely functional and often not functioning, and its text is spattered with errors.  

Earlier this year the SNCF reported that it had made a Euro 2.4 billion profit in 2022. Its revenue had surpassed, was up 19% on the previous year and it would be reinvesting the profit in the railways’ maintenance and infrastructure. 

Imagine if PRASA or the freight service, Transnet, had made a profit. Imagine if they decided to invest it back into maintenance and infrastructure. 

On 14th July France celebrated its national day, Bastille Day, with the usual military parade. This year President Emmanuel Macron did something unprecedented. He honoured a company, the SNCF, by inviting 49 of its employees to participate in the official march down the Champs Elysees.

The employees have various roles in the company such as conductors, drivers, clerks, managers, but they are also operational reservists in the armed forces, so it wasn’t as bizarre as you may think.  

I couldn’t help it. Mbalula and his destruction mafia mates sprung to mind.

Where exactly would we want to march Mbalula and his ministerial predecessors who presided over the destruction at PRASA and Transnet?  To the guillotine steps?

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. Even intrusive thoughts of the jaunty ANC Secretary-General could not spoil my holiday at 30 plus degrees C temperatures and in countries where I felt safe.

I relaxed and ruminated. I visited and saw magnificent things ordinary people had built and which had lasted for hundreds, thousands of years. I saw capex projects from the distant past, that had been completed, added to, maintained and were still going strong, like the river-powered mill down the road in a village in which we stayed, or Roman bridges still used as part of a the road system; like magnificent chateaux (often privately owned)  earning money for their owners and their region hand over fist from thousands of tourists, both local and foreign;  a  soaring modern cathedral  (Sagrada Familia)  still under construction after 140 years and many generations, entirely funded by private money from people with a single purpose.

When I returned home, restored and refreshed, Mbalula was posting old videos of coming train and rail transformation and talking up the revival of PRASA and Transnet. But Shosholoza Meyl was still not going anywhere much. Neither were all the commuter trains Mbalula had bragged would be running last year. Rea Vaya bus stations remained abandoned.

The taxi industry which ‘grew like Topsy’ and, like a bully, pushes aside the emaciated train and bus services, was again damaging the Western Cape economy, causing violence and death.

Despite all that, I remain glad to be home because I now have some hope that this country, which my ancestors first came to in 1820, does have a chance to get back on track to being more first-world than third-world.

In recent weeks I have seen at least two city mayors stand firm on the issue of law and order, which despite the violent, destructive and fatality-producing protests this inevitably engenders, will have to prevail if we are to ever accomplish change for the better in the future, 

I also derive hope from the serious effort, by those who oppose the ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters, to negotiate and to find agreement through a Multi-Party Coalition Charter.

As Ray Hartley of the Brenthurst Foundation wrote in the Daily Maverick: “The sight of DA leader John Steenhuisen, IFP leader VF Hlabisa, ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba, FF Plus leader Pieter Groenewald and others standing up to sign the pledge signalled that opposition parties are ending the era of petty infighting among themselves to focus on the greater project of winning an election.”

The Charter agreement “binds the parties to work together to form a government should they collectively win enough votes in the 2024 general election.” 

Hartley says the pact also outlines agreed-on priorities for such a government which include growing the economy, boosting law and order and quality education.

The charter may be replete with all the usual social justice goals, with plenty of wiggle room and no policy as yet, but as Hartley points out, there is already a definite reference to an open market economy. 

To my mind that’s a good enough starting point for a coalition aiming to govern “for the people” rather than for the elite and the spoils.

If more voters can be inspired to vote by next elections (the Brenthurst Foundation’s research shows that currently 18 million adults are not participating in elections) and do the only sensible and reasonable thing and vote in a competent, alternative government being developed through this charter, in, at the very least, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Tshwane or Durban, I am  prepared to slog through yet more tough times in Johannesburg while the city government is put to rights.

Hartley says the coalition pact means that “suddenly the 2024 election has become a real contest between two divergent value systems”. 

I know which system of values I want in place to ensure I will continue to want to return home to  Johannesburg, South Africa, after 2024.

*Gimme hope Jo’anna 

If you are too young, or too old to remember:  This 1988 song, written by Eddy Grant, was banned in South Africa but was almost an anthem for anyone who was inclined towards the United Democratic Front in the late 80s and early 90s. According to Wikipedia: “Though the lyrics are worded as if the singer is addressing a person, ‘Jo’anna” is a reference to Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa and symbolic of the apartheid government…It expressed hope for change in South Africa.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.