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When power changes hands in South Africa

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Kole Omotoso


As new settlers arrive in South Africa, you get told all sorts of stories. You get told stories that would ensure you emphasize with the perceived group you belong to. You get told stories that would give you strength or weakness depending on what you need. One story we were told soon after our arrival was that black workers were not interested in the salaries attached to their jobs. South Africa is a civilized country where workers’ salaries are paid regularly as when due. That is also why annually, workers go on token strikes as part of the negotiation for their wages.

So, South African workers have no problem about their salaries. What they are interested in is what is the opening within the company or the household for stealing? How much can they get away with stealing plus their salaries? After all, black workers have been oppressed for centuries. Sometimes they have been paid peanuts for work done. Sometimes they have been robbed of their labour’s worth. So what does it matter if workers can make off with little things now and then in addition to their salaries?

Damon Galgut has his main character in The Good Doctor, Frank names it ‘ethical dilemma’ when your sympathy is with the thief and not with the keepers of law and order. Today, it is quite easy to say that South Africa is suffering from ethical dilemma. If we are not careful this dilemma will destroy the country before our very eyes. The group that has been accused of stealing the country dry insists that it is promoting African Economic Transformation. It is as if we all agree that Africans in South Africa will never make it without stealing from the state one way or another. Perhaps we are halfway to agreeing with this group when we welcome transitional justice as an aspect of justice. Whether we like it or not African Economic Transformation, using transitional justice must become an aspect of our life in South Africa.

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It is a fact that the African National Congress has agreed that members of the party can do business with the government in which they serve. A powerful argument can be made to accommodate the special but peculiar situation of South Africa where it is accepted that stealing from government is the only way to balance the material conditions of South Africans. Without such a deliberate compromise, nothing will ever work in the country. There were two possibilities for South African Literature. There is the positive progressive possibility and there is the negative possibility. This kind of clearcut division has been the dominant future for the country since the apartheid era. The negative prediction for the future is to be seen in the fiction of white South Africans while the positive future is usually projected by black writers. But with the massive positive image of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues of the African National Congress, the projection changed.

It became more positive. They should have waited for Jacob Zuma and his African Economic Transformation. When power changed hands in South Africa the country was truly and frankly underdeveloped, deliberately underdeveloped for the use of approximately ten percent of the population, the whites of the country. There is enough in this country to satisfy the needs of all the people of the country. These resources must be developed and the talents of the people must be trained.

Education, more than anything else, would be the solution. To stretch the existing deliberately limited infrastructure that did for ten per cent of the population to serve 100 per cent of the population is courting disaster. For the next twenty to fifty years South Africa must labour and build the way Singapore was built until there was enough for everyone to share. And people were prepared to work. Like the young doctor in Damon Galgut’s novel. He was prepared to go to the most distant bush to go and do a one year community service. He arrives into the cynicism of the people there, they themselves doing nothing. Whites are enemies. Black had had a ‘hard’ time. They must be excused if they need to steal to catch up with the rest of the population. The hospital is needed, there is no doubt, if only the people know where it is located. Unqualified personnel end up being employed to do what needs to be done. Sometime Tehogo does not show up at work; he is excused because he has been having a hard time.

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When the minimum of discipline could be applied to keep the rules in view and expected behavior parallel nothing was done. One of the problems of system is the plague of informality. Electronics and computerization would help to bridge the gap between literacy and informality. But informality has no infrastructure to run a system, any system. Maria’s shop of things has no meaning. Mama Mtembu’s bar and eatery runs for some time and then disappears.

What is the role of the army in all this? Here, the junior officer who stages a coup d’etat a la Africa makes an appearance in this novel more like the soldiers of the Dr. Haiti. There is no condemnation and there is no endorsement of the action of the military. Now a Brigadier mowing the grass at government house at midnight was not enough to get The Good Doctor beyond nomination for the Man Booker Prize. All went to waste, all the unused resources that South Africa could use to double or triple the bounty of South Africa, all went to waste. By the time some other eyes were called to come and look, it was too late.

Suddenly, South Africa became one of the countries that has to think of how to send a president to goal for a long time. No matter the words used to cover the corruption, what went on under former President Zuma was not transformation, and there was nothing African about it. Only transition justice can justify him. Let it do its work and let’s get on with work that must be done. Why are we lingering?

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Kole Omotoso
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