Tuesday, 28 August 2012

What A View!

How To Get South Africa Working

“So what’s this ‘brainstorming’ story about?”
“I thought it might be an interesting exercise,” I said. “After going into Zwelihle the other day and sitting in the car while we were waiting … just sitting there observing the crap conditions people have to live under …. Well, I thought, shit, there must be a way out of this. It’s like this idea of being trapped in a narrative. I’ve been trying to come up with a way to change the dead-end story we’re living in.”
We were still climbing but the road had levelled out a bit and the Grootbos sign was coming into view.
“Every second citizen has got a pet theory about how to solve the world’s problems,’ said Cupcake. “Who the hell is going to listen to your version of utopia? I mean, you might be sincere and very earnest, and all that, but you’re a nobody. You got fokol credentials.”
“That’s alright,” I said. “That’s not the point. What matters is to make the effort and do the exercise.”
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve. We stopped at the boom and a woman dressed like a Conservation Officer came out from the gatehouse. She was holding a clipboard.
“Tell her we’re coming to lunch,” I said.
She let us through with a friendly smile.
The road was only wide enough for one vehicle and wound through some dense Milkwood forest before coming out into open fynbos. The other guy pulled off in a passing bay to let an oncoming car through.
‘Hey, hold it!” Cupcake called out.
A male baboon had emerged from the bush and was heading for a sign some 20 metres away. On reaching it, he pulled himself up and perched on top of one of the two uprights. The sign read A FED BABOON IS A DEAD BABOON.
“Man, this is classic!” said Cupcake, taking pictures with his mobile.
“I wonder what our cousin would have to say if he could read the message,” I said.
“Probably think it neo-colonial propaganda,” said the other guy. “Like ‘Don’t give the natives strong drink because they can’t handle it’.”
At the Lodge there weren’t many cars in the parking area. We strolled along a path through ericas and proteas, passed a water feature and entered the reception foyer. The restaurant was a long room separated from the famous view by a wall of glass. We went straight to the bar and ordered drinks.
“Let’s sit over here,” I said, leading the way to some comfortable chairs in the far corner.
We took in the classy décor, admired the wide angle display of veld, ocean, mountain and sky, and settled ourselves around a low table. I opened my notebook.
“You’re taking this seriously,” Cupcake commented.
“Yep,” I said. “I’ve even got an agenda: we define the problem; we identify the causes; we propose solutions.”
“Sounds pretty basic,’ said the other guy. “No difficulty in defining the problem. Everybody talks about it, the threefold curse of poverty, unemployment and inequality.”
“Agreed,” I said, “Analysing the causes is going to be more complex, though.”
“We can start with apartheid,” said Cupcake. “Everything can be blamed on apartheid. That’s if we don’t want to lay the blame on the ANC and corruption and incompetence.”
“What about Capitalism?” said the other guy. “The neo-liberal feeding frenzy has brought the world economy to the brink of another Great Depression.”
“I’m glad you mention the Great Depression,” I said. I wrote in my notebook and then lowered the level of my glass, which contained a mix of one tot whisky to one bottle Carling Black Label. “We can learn some useful lessons from the Great Depression.”
“An unregulated banking system caused the Depression,” said Cupcake. “And the present financial crisis, which is beginning to affect us more and more, can be laid at the door of the financial sector – greedy scumbags speculating with assets that don’t exist.”
“And then there’s Globalisation,” said the other guy. “We were incredibly stupid to allow ourselves to be duped into joining the WTO and stop protecting our own manufacturing sector. Free trade is a confidence trick. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of jobs because of free trade, and now the shops are stocked with cheap Chinese crap that no one can afford because they don’t earn anything.”
“Competition is another con,” said Cupcake. “Competition almost invariably means lower wages and worse working conditions. South Africa has absolutely no chance of competing with China and other Asian countries when it comes to manufacturing basic consumer goods. Look at our textile, clothing and shoe industries. They have all but disappeared because they couldn’t compete with China.”
“Yah, but the Chinese are also in trouble now,” said the other guy. “China’s heading for a fall if …”
“Maybe,” I said. “But listen, we’re getting sidetracked. And we need another drink.”
Both Cupcake and the other guy agreed that I should get the next round, seeing as this outing was my idea.
“Alright,” I said when I returned from the bar. “We’re making progress with our learned discussion. But I’d like to fast forward to the solution part now, if you don’t mind.”
“Okay with me,” said Cupcake. “But we’ve only scratched the surface with the analysis bit.”
“He can’t wait to get up on his soapbox,” said the other guy. Then, to me: “Go for it. Tell us how you propose finding everyone a decent job.”
“The politicians, the economists, , the intellectuals, even the average citizen, they all acknowledge the system isn’t working, and something needs to happen, like tomorrow,” I said. “But nobody has a clue about how to fix it.”
“Nobody,” said Cupcake, “apart from you and a few individuals at Valkenberg and Weskoppies.”
“That’s right,’ I said. “What we need is something drastic, something really bold. Like the New Deal Roosevelt brought in during the Depression. It was pure socialism but it got America working again.”
“I thought it was the Second World War that really got the US economy going?” said Cupcake.
“The New Deal got them started,” I said.
“Jesus, we don’t need a war,” said the other guy. “So tell us, what’s your bold new deal for Mzansi?”
“Well,” I said, “It’s as if our minds have been attacked by some virus that paralyses us and convinces us that we are powerless to change our situation. We just keep repeating the same old stuff about growing the economy, but we don’t actually do anything to make things happen.”
“Yah, it’s strange that we can’t get our asses moving,’ said the other guy. “Especially when you think what South Africa was able to achieve in 2010.”
“The World Cup was another con and a huge waste of resources,” said Cupcake. “But it demonstrated what can be done if we get fired up.”
“Exactly,” I said. “We need to snap out of this collective coma we’ve fallen into, and throw ourselves at another big project. But not something stupid like the FIFA World Cup.”
“That’s for sure,” said the other guy. “The World Cup made some filthy rich folks even richer, and left the country with incredibly expensive stadiums that we don’t need and can’t use. No more of that kind of shit, thank you. But come on, tell us about your amazing plan to get South Africa moving.”
It was at this point that the two men who had been hovering nearby pretending to be looking at the view, but who were actually eavesdropping, decided to cast social decorum aside and draw even closer.
“Please excuse us for interrupting and intruding,” said the older of the two. He was about 40 and spoke with just the faintest hint of a German accent. “We couldn’t help overhearing your most interesting conversation, and wondered whether we …”
Now, when a courteous individual employs ellipsis on me, I generally tend to react graciously. Not like Cupcake, who muttered something about a bloody cheek.
“Please join us,” I said, getting to my feet and holding out my hand for them to shake. My buddies also got to their feet, which was nice of them, and we all introduced ourselves. I noted with suspicion that Cupcake was now grinning sociably.
Dieter and Peter (Dieter was the older of the two) pulled up a chair apiece and we all sat down. Then, almost immediately, Cupcake took up his near empty glass, examined its contents, and then poured them down his throat.
“Aah!” he said with satisfaction, and put the glass back on the table. The other guy then performed the exact same ritual, right down to the appreciative but slightly disappointed ‘Aah!’. My own glass was already empty.
“Barman!” Dieter called imperiously. “Barman! Please send the waitress.”
The waitress arrived and he insisted on buying a round. While we waited for her to come back with the drinks, we exchanged pleasantries. They both worked in the German film industry and were on a working holiday in South Africa. They were knowledgeable and their interest in the country appeared genuine.
When the drinks arrived I was urged to continue with my grand scheme.
“Well, yes, thank you,” I said. “I was going to say that we have to start by changing our perception of the poor. Instead of seeing their needs as a liability and a drain on state resources, we should wake up to the staggeringly vast field of opportunities they offer us. Upliftment of the poor should become the main driving force in our economy. And by upliftment I don’t mean moving a family from a one-roomed shack into a two-roomed RDP hovel. There’s no dignity in living like that, and kids will never reach their potential if they have to grow up in those conditions.”
“You want to build everyone a bloody great mansion?” said the other guy. “You’ve got to be out of your tiny mind.”
“Not a mansion,” I said. “Mansions should be discouraged. No, what I had in mind was something modest but with all mod cons, like three bedrooms, two toilets, bath and shower, and a garage and a small garden. All built to First World standards.”
“Very nice,” said Cupcake. “And it would sort out unemployment for a while. But one small problem: where are you going to get the bucks for all this?”
“Print it,’ I said, and noted a look of derision on the four faces of my audience. “And why not? What I propose is the setting up of a state bank that would lend money at a minimal interest rate for this and other developmental projects. People tend to forget that money has no intrinsic value, and is only created to facilitate trade in goods and services. It’s the goods and services that have value. And this isn’t money that’s being given away. If the loan isn’t repaid the bank can foreclose, just like the private banks do.”
“Mmm, I see,” said the other guy as he sipped his drink, which was a double rum and Coke. “A big housing boom would definitely get the economy roaring.”
“It would also give the manufacturing sector a massive boost,” said Cupcake. “How many houses are we talking about?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I would guess at least 5 million. Anyway, 5 million is a nice number to work with. Can you imagine building 5 million houses at one million per unit? That’s 5 trillion rand! And everything must be 100 percent locally produced.”
“With such a project, on such a large scale, we would go from massive unemployment to a shortage of labour,” said Cupcake.
“We would need to fast track a whole lot of trade schools and training colleges,” said the other guy.
“In Germany we have developed a good system for artisan training,” said Peter. “A good artisan is as important as a good doctor. We could share this with you.”
“That’s it, Peter,” I said. “We could learn best practice from Germany and other countries where good systems have been worked out. No need to reinvent the wheel.”
“With so many natural resources,” said Dieter, “Your potential for growth is almost unlimited. Your idea is … Ah, but here come the ladies. Allow me to introduce you.”
The ladies were bearing down on us. Wow! So this is what they meant by a working holiday.
My buddies were on their feet and rapidly metamorphosing from one identity to another. Amazing what affect the presence of young females has on men.
“I hope you and your two friends will join us for lunch?” Dieter said to me. “We can continue the conversation at the table. And maybe you even have some ideas on how to solve the Euro zone crisis?”

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