I spent most of August 2015 in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia – a depressing and mournful tour indeed.
The place I stayed in South Africa, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is atypical. I am almost always the only guest in a new 50-room hotel in Kliptown, Soweto, which is already falling into disrepair. This was the site of the 1955 Congress of the People, when almost 3,000 people from all over South Africa smuggled themselves into a derelict township to sign the Freedom Charter that inaugurated the fightback against Apartheid.
It was also the homeland of tsotsi knife-gangsters, and it’s still not unusual to be regaled with stories by gnarled veterans of those days about numbers of “kills”. They may not use knives any more, but the fear that they might is what deters visitors – and with no money coming in, Kliptown remains derelict.
At nights, I frequent a community centre where the elderly survivors of 1955 and the 1976 Soweto students’ uprising relive their stories – and note, politely but acerbically, that they have seen no changes since the end of Apartheid.
Indeed, the entire nation seems to be in a state of decay where nothing works any more. Electricity is first on the list. Wi-Fi, in a country where most cabinet ministers can’t use e-mail (as confessed to me by one such minister), is certainly on my list. For the people of Kliptown, on the other hand, basic sanitation is a top priority.
It’s as if the ANC government has an unconscious conviction that everything stopped at liberation, that there is nothing left to learn. Whatever the rationale, they’ve certainly stopped learning. South Africa is becoming a most unmodern state in all its official habits, and in the protocols of its public administration. It is an old man’s government – and the old men seem to have learned nothing new in the 21 years since 1994.
Over the border, the Zimbabwean economy is slowly but surely sinking again. No, this isn’t a crazy crash into hyperinflation like the one in 2008, when trillions of Zimbabwean dollars were worthless. But even with the value of the US dollar that now serves as its currency, Zimbabwe is nonetheless trapped in an elevator that’s going steadily and irrevocably downwards.
There are not enough dollars, and productivity is simply too low. The country’s national debt is estimated at 181% of GDP, and the World Bank reports that 87% of national revenues are consumed by the civil service wage bill.
The government, mired in vicious rhetoric and infighting, has no new ideas, and even the 91-year-old President Mugabe sounds unconvinced by his own assurances that all will be well. The opposition has split, and the senior figures spectacularly purged from the government party at the end of 2014 have still not founded their own opposition party.
Everywhere, the Mugabe government has no opposition to stand in its way, and yet can accomplish nothing. The country has not paid its own way since 1997, and particularly not since the infamous land seizures of 2000.
The new lame ducks
The atmosphere in Zambia, meanwhile, is not exactly exuberant. After the 2014 death of Zambia’s president Michael Sata and a short interim presidency under a white man, Guy Scott, a very bitter leadership struggle ultimately elevated Edgar Lungu to the presidency. Dogged by rumours of ill health, he may become yet another Zambian President to die in office.
But his presidency will be very brief either way. Lungu must stand for a full term in the national election of 2016, but like his Zimbawean and South African counterparts, he seems to have no new ideas or policies. That leaves him with little to offer face of a recently burst economic bubble, which was sustained only by high copper prices.
On my visit to Zambia, I had a long lunch with Guy Scott, with whom I’ve been friends since long before he became a political figure. He remains burnt by the treatment he received from the Lungu camp in the bitter struggles of the transition; he still mourns the death of Sata, whom he clearly regards as a great man cut off in his prime and the only one with a vision for Zambia.
It seems no fresh giant is waiting in the wings to storm the political scene in either South Africa, Zimbabwe or Zambia. There’s no-one youthful and vibrant, in good health, and equipped with the new economic technological ideas these countries need to save themselves.
It need not be this way. On my otherwise downbeat swing through old stomping grounds, I had the joy of interact with younger people of flair and originality, of style and ideas, of commitment and ambition. Ambition that is, for everything except politics. And given the behaviour of their rulers, it’s not hard to see why.
This article was originally published on Decline and decay: a sobering trip through southern Africa