There is nothing quite as satisfying as watching a prosperously plump politician slow roasting in difficulties of his own making. Smothered under lashings of public opprobrium following the Marikana massacre, President Jacob Zuma was this week fairly sizzling.
It’s all so unfair, was the theme. The African National Congress had done more to improve the lives of the poor than any government in history. Yet the masses are showering their benefactors with rocks and abuse, not thanks.
The fault lay with media commentators, declared Zuma. Opening a SA Local Government Association conference, Zuma lashed out at critics who claim that government has not done enough to improve service delivery after 18 years of democracy.
‘We in government … are very timid, very shy to tell what is happening. And we then create a space that those who are critical, they look like they are telling the truth that nothing has happened.
‘I hear everyday all these clever people are saying that nothing has happened in this country. Nothing; no delivery, nothing. For criticism to be respected, it must be balanced, it must be objective. It cannot be one-sided.’
Zuma is correct on one thing. The ANC government has achieved an enormous amount in terms of electrification, house building and water provision, albeit that a relatively small proportion of that has been on his watch.
The SA Institute of Race Relations has released statistics recording that the number of South Africans living on under $2 a day has declined from 12% in 1994 – it peaked at 17% in 2002 – to just 5% today. In the same period the number of households in formal housing increased from 5.8m to 11m, those with electricity from 5.2m to 11.9m, and those with piped water from 7.2m to 12.7m. Consequently, 76% of households live in formal housing, 83% have electricity and 89% have water.
SAIRR deputy CEO Frans Cronje however argues that it is these very successes that lie behind service delivery protests, because they have raised expectations that cannot be met because of shortcomings in the school system and the labour market. In other words, education fails to provide most school leavers with the skills necessary to get jobs. And when it does, labour regulations make it damnably difficult to get that first toehold in the job market.
Cronje is right, but rising expectations are only part of the story. The poor are not gullible dupes, filled with rage because the media misleads them about reality.
They are angry because while their share of the pie is increasing, it remains crumbs. The bulk of the pie is being commandeered by the corrupt and the connected.
They are angry because R70bn of the annual national budget, by government’s own calculations, is being stolen or wasted. Yet the guilty are rarely punished, doffed as they are in the ANC’s cloak of immunity.
They are angry because there is a disdain for the little people on the part a widely inept and arrogant state bureaucracy. That’s especially true of cops, teachers and nurses – the frontline entrusted with carrying out the basic duties of a functioning state: safety, education and health.
They are angry because the ANC has been unable to create jobs, the critical factor to a life of agency and dignity, as opposed to one of supplication and humiliation. Welfare is welcome but work is what is really wanted.
Ordinary South Africans, but especially the poor, have reasons enough for anger. It is Zuma’s apparent inability to grasp this, which has turned what a month ago looked like his stroll to re-election as party leader into what might yet be a close run thing.