At every single gathering of business people I’ve attended recently, at least one person referred to RW Johnson’s latest book, How Long Will South Africa Survive?
The problem is that most of these people crudely hyperbolise Johnson’s hyperbole – only his is at least backed by half-truths.
We’re facing an imminent debt-trap, like Greece, but the ANC’s left wing, the Communist Party, the EFF and the grouping around Numsa will refuse an IMF bail-out, is what people remember from the book.
We’re facing the end of our modern industrial economy, a low-level civil war and even an attack on the integrity of the country, is another shorthand quote from the Johnson book I usually get. Two years and it’s tickets, is the message.
It’s not hard nowadays to make a worst-case scenario sound like the most likely scenario, what with the Zuma government’s unending blunders, reckless rhetoric and scandals.
When people confront me with Johnson’s predictions, I try to engage them on his basic arguments. I’ve not been very successful. There is no way I can say for sure that his predictions will not come to pass. There is a kernel of truth in almost everything he says.
It is indeed possible that we are “set up for a huge and obvious failure”, as Johnson says. The only question is how likely this is.
Every time I get into my car in the city there must be about a 10% chance of getting involved in a crash or a hijacking, yet I’m still happy to drive every day.
But Johnson appears to be saying that our chances of failure as a country are well over 50%. Those kinds of odds would make me stick to the Gautrain or stay at home and Skype anyone who wants to talk to me.
Johnson’s predicted collapse is indeed possible if all the negative trends he mentioned not only continue, but deteriorate further. And that’s where I think he makes a fundamental error.
Just last week we had an example of why one should look deeper than ANC rhetoric and scandal: in an unprecedented move, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and all the top judges stood up to the ANC and raised a serious warning about attacks on the judiciary. Most of these judges were regarded as pro-ANC by many when they were appointed.
If South Africa was really such a flaky state as Johnson depicts it to be, criticism of the courts by the executive would not have elicited such an overwhelming outcry by civil society and opposition parties as we had witnessed. The same goes for the Nkandla scandal and the Marikana Massacre.
Another example: at the end of the SACP’s national congress and all the nasty rhetoric that flowed from it, former Cabinet Minister Trevor Manuel wrote a brave and scathing critique of the party in City Press. Rest assured, this wasn’t just Manuel talking and he didn’t write this on a whim.
Johnson offers no real understanding of some of the shifts in the power relationships we are experiencing. He doesn’t acknowledge the recent commitment to reform and efficiency in some State departments, like local government, education and health, and he seems to underestimate the professionalism of the National Treasury.
In my opinion, Johnson doesn’t properly consider the very real possibility that a bad performance by the ANC in next year’s local elections could render Jacob Zuma a lame duck, because then his chances of re-election a year later would be close to nil – and then the entire Zuma empire and power network could collapse dramatically. Post-Zuma South Africa could be a very different place.
It is clear from the notes at the back of his book that Johnson relied overwhelmingly on newspaper cuttings and his own previous books for his insights and diagnosis. His own interactions mentioned in the book mostly happened many years ago.
That’s no way to check a society’s real temperature or to understand the subtle shifts in power.
This may sound more unkind than I mean it to be, but I did get the impression that Johnson was looking for quotes and narratives that would back up his own liberal disullusionment and dark foreboding.
His crude dismissal of the DA as ANC Lite and his simplistic “tribal” analysis of the political dynamics are two tell-tale signs that Johnson should be taken with a pinch of salt. The same goes for his statement that the ANC will rig elections – in our present system with its judicial oversight that is simply impossible.
The Zuma term has inflicted deep damage on South Africa. Corruption and nepotism are very serious threats, as are our debt to GDP ratio of 40.8%, our huge public sector wage bill and the deeply felt resentment and rising anger of millions of the poor and unemployed. The fact that half of our population was born after 1990 and that only 30% of them have jobs and that a third of our prison population is between 14 and 24 years old, are cause for deep concern.
But I’ll put money on it that two years from now Bill Johnson will have to come up with fancy explanations as to why we’re still not down the tube.
How much money will I wager? Well, not a fortune….