While politicians gossip, we the people of South Africa make a difference
South Africans are earning a living to the best of their abilities – even if it takes advantage of an R350 grant to stretch it further than the most flexible piece of Lycra.
- This State of the Nation Analysis series examines the underlying dynamics in South Africa ahead of the 2022 State of the Nation Address on Thursday, February 10.
The crudely welded “Klipplaat Diesel Depot 1970” sign is about the only reminder of what was once key to this slept — the Cape Town-Gqeberha railway line with its junction with Graaff-Reinet, the backbone of the local Merino and Angora economies.
Today the train tracks are broken – blocked on one side of the main track, abandoned to weeds on the other. A rusting locomotive on a bed of gravel overlooks the only obvious economic activity: a gas station. It’s on the main road just past the immaculate police station, with a sign nearby proclaiming: “Gift of the Givers water project”.
Klipplaat’s fate is little different from, say, Le Roux along the back roads of the Western Cape hinterland, where buildings have collapsed in on themselves, or pretty much anywhere else along of the line, by the way. As hundreds of miles of railway tracks deteriorate, communities crumble, accelerating the disintegration of the economic and social fabric.
Rail infrastructure should have been at the heart of economic activity. For years, politicians and authorities have proclaimed the mantra “Road to Rail” to protect deteriorating tarmac roads from further damage from behemoths hauling anything from food and wood to diesel. and gas across the country, but also to increase volumes and profitability.
If anything has become of this policy proclamation, it is not readily visible. Certainly not in Klipplaat. Or in Willowmore, where about 40km from town the tarmacked R329 becomes a single lane wide strip of concrete. Traffic signs warn that vehicles must yield to oncoming traffic – and everyone is slowing down and driving half on gravel and half on the concrete strip, from sedans to bakkies to huge trucks coming in both directions.
Precarious lives are chased away by social benefits, of which some 18 million are paid each month in South Africa. An additional nine million rand of Covid-19 social relief grants in times of distress are being paid to those not receiving any other assistance, according to the National Treasury.
Grant disbursement days underscore the centrality of this social support, when families then purchase food and other goods for the month ahead. It is obvious in the dormitoriesmaybe a little less elsewhere.
Grant days generate a range of interconnected activities, not the least of which is transportation – to and from grant queues and to and from stores for supplies. And this vital niche economic activity, rather than any philanthropic sentiment, was at the heart of why taxi drivers blocked looters from entering malls during the July 2021 violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Social grants keep starvation away from the door. But in the absence of much-talked about – but yet to manifest – structural and policy reforms for job creation, quality education and training, desperate survivalism is the order of the day.
Livelihoods – always precarious in a country where subsidies, remittances and the informal, often survivalist economy dominate – have become even more uncertain in the Covid-19 pandemic. South Africa’s national state of disaster, which is heading towards its second anniversary on March 15, has come at a heavy cost.
Some two million jobs were lost, pushing the unemployment rate up to 46.4% under the broad definition that includes those too discouraged to keep looking for work. And while business revenue appears to be higher than expected – the SA Revenue Service reportedly takes in more than expected – overall economic growth has been revised down to 4.8% from 5.2% in 2021 and is estimated at 1.7% for 2022.
Inflation in December 2021 reached 5.9% and rising gas and food prices are putting people under even greater pressure. The 20.5% tariff increase proposed by Eskom – not to mention the municipal increases that will follow – will tear holes in nearly empty pockets.
South Africans are increasingly making fun of politicians. Recent surveys reflect a decline in public trust in politicians, political parties and, most importantly, government.
In a concrete manifestation of this, masks and physical distancing enforced by Covid-19 have disappeared – unless access is needed to shops, malls and government offices. Few people talk about politics. A completely different issue is the rapidly rising cost of living, which worries just about everyone, and the rain.
Outside the bubble, politicians keep nice PR words, protocols, blue lights and bodyguards while South Africans look to themselves.
And they stepped up.
Not just in traditional stokvels, but also in Community Action Networks (CANs) which provided food and other forms of support during the toughest Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and beyond.
Or initiatives like the Tuisnywerheid in Oudtshoorn, a cooperative that leveraged its workforce to secure a storefront on the main road with lots of foot traffic. If a small farmer near this central Karoo town needs beans to sell, those packets are on the shelves – or in the fridge, given the heat – next to the Hertzoggies (tartlets with jam) and wortelkoek (carrot cake), each labeled with the number of the cooperative member who produced them.
And those South Africans who have decided to see their own country are the ones who have brought relief to the struggling tourism, leisure and hospitality sector this festive 2021/22 season.
While Cape Town has generated some R800 million from its festive season visitors, according to local council officials, quantifying the increase in festive season tourism elsewhere is a bit slow. But talk to any owner of a B&B, guesthouse or restaurant who has held his own over the past 20 months, and they are grateful to South Africans for having hit the road.
This tourism boost is not necessarily because of what someone in authority did, but because South Africans decided to travel, especially people from Gauteng, the Free State and Mpumalanga – if l we believe the license plates of cars and trailers.
“People decided to travel, especially the black middle classes, to see the country. It was good to see,’ says a longtime Oudtshoorn resident of how festive season holidaymakers have buoyed up the town after two lean years.
The bubbling below is another trend – young people returning from the cities. It has brought a new dynamic and energy to the city, according to the resident. “Young people bring new ideas. And all socialize together, regardless of race. It’s a whole new vibe.
For some, a return to where they grew up is based on the decision to make a difference.
Growing up on a farm in De Rust, Andries Schoeman decided in 2021 to return to open a restaurant and a place to live. When a previously Franschhoek-based chef came on board, everything was gone, and after a four-month renovation of a building that included dentists’ offices, Pluim opened in December.
“We wanted to create options, to also attract different visitors to the city. This will then create jobs and other spinoffs,” Schoeman says of the venture with his partner, Jan Berand Badenhorst.
A local accommodation owner hailed the new addition saying, “This is what we need.”
Now that the May 2022 Meiringspoort challenge for cyclists and trail runners is confirmed – and another race could resume later in 2022 – the hope that more visitors will boost tourism income and jobs in De Rust can turn into reality.
The picture changes somewhat on the Garden Route, which has been able to attract and retain money.
George’s regional center is booming, as is reportedly Mossel Bay, whose business community extends into the hinterland; word in Oudtshoorn was that such a move was the reason the local biltong factory first closed during the festive season, causing a shortage of ostrich biltong and droewors. In Hermanus, a sprawling commercial center along a more industrial area adjoining the harbor signals not only economic activity but also wealth.
Real estate is booming. At least some of this is related to what is described as “the leak” of broken subways and their potholed roads, burst water pipes and the like. The middle classes are relocating now that remote work is acceptable and feasible. A similar dynamic plays out in dormitories like Darling where those with GP number plates combine a vacation spot with property searches, as the local vine wants.
But elsewhere, the rusting railway bridges and shacks surrounding the church in places like De Hoop just off the Calitzdorp road mark infrastructure decline – and also social and economic disintegration. highlighted by South Africa’s buoyant economy at best.
Fact is, South Africans make a living to the best of their abilities – even if it leverages an R350 grant to stretch it further than the most flexible piece of Lycra.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the State of the Nation address on Thursday, he will speak about his administration’s achievements and the government’s policy programs and priorities. But talk of an economic recovery, however eloquent, does not make it a reality.
The true state of the nation is elsewhere – with ordinary South Africans, getting by no matter what. DM