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Sat Dec 10 08:54:58 SAST 2016

Millions are signing out

Justice Malala | 2013-09-10 00:23:18.0
A woman uses candlelight to read, and generator power for her computer, so she can carry on working in the midst of a power cut
Image by: BRENDAN CROFT/GALLO IMAGES

Countries become basket cases when good men and women check out of the system.

They do their own thing, and do not get involved in the conversations and actions of the rest of the country.

They live and let die.

Think of what happened to us in 2008 when the electricity outages ravaged large parts of the country. Commerce came to a standstill. Homes, schools and factories were without lights, and, in many cases, water. The economy lost billions of rands.

We had a spike in generator sales then as people decided that they did not have confidence in the country's power supply system. They were saying goodbye to Eskom and to South Africa.

They were checking out. They had given up on the system.

This week in the economic powerhouse of Africa, Johannesburg, power supply was disrupted in parts of the West Rand and at least 10 northern Joburg suburbs after a few hundred City Power staff downed tools on Wednesday afternoon.

The workers were apparently unhappy about a new shift system being implemented by City Power. There are strong suspicions that they not only downed tools but sabotaged the system to ensure maximum chaos.

The consequences of these workers' actions were huge. Schools were without electricity or water. Patients seeking oxygen had to be evacuated from homes.

One of the continent's biggest shopping centres, Cresta, was out of action for two days.

A newspaper quoted Bramley Park resident Roy Wilson, who lives in a townhouse complex, saying his area had been without power for two days and he was the only one in the complex who has a generator.

"I am trying to help my neighbours charge their phones and boil water for a cup of tea," he told reporters.

How many people will be following in Wilson's footsteps after this week and buying generators? How many across Joburg and South Africa, fearful of the next fire, will do the same?

The day they do so, they will be saying: "I am tired of being held to ransom by government incompetence, unreliable workers and criminality. I am checking out. I will rely on my own electricity supply."

Think about what the same people who are opting out of the electricity grid have opted out of already. They no longer trust the police, so they are already paying security companies to look after them while they live behind electric fences and high walls.

They do not trust the water supply, so they have sunk wells in their yards. They do not trust state education, so they send their children to private schools.

And they no longer comment on, or follow the country's politics because they feel powerless as monstrosities such as Nkandla are built while the Guptas land their jets at Waterkloof Air Force base with impunity. They keep their heads down and make money.

This is the moment which is most brilliantly described by my friend Dele Olojede, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. I have used his words before, but they returned to me again this week. Speaking of his native Nigeria in 2005, he said: "We live in a Hobbesian jungle, where every man is for himself and the concept of the common good has become totally alien.

"In such a state, there is no law that anyone is willing to obey. The state itself is considered illegitimate. Force and fraud are the two driving forces. Individuals arrange for their own security, their own electricity, their own water; every home is like a private local government. What we need we take, in complete disregard of any rules.

"Hobbes calls this chaotic free-for-all a state of war, the very heart of our darkness. It is an entirely unpredictable place, and everyone plans only for the short term."

In such a place, teachers refuse to send their own children to public schools. They have checked out. In such a place, of the whole Cabinet, only Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi goes to public hospitals. The rest have signed out. They cannot be expected to fight to make public services better. They don't care any more. They have checked out, and the poor will just have to deal with it.

In City Press yesterday, newspaper editor Ferial Haffajee wrote: "For the longest time, I opined we were at a tipping point of being corrupt if we didn't do something about it. Well, now we've tipped. We are well and truly corrupt."

Why are we corrupt, as Haffajee puts it? It is because the good men and women of our country have signed out. They are making money, sending their children to private schools and using private cars instead of public transport.

We have said to our beloved country: "We are out."

Think of all the countries you know in which the elite has signed out of the system. There is a collective name for them: banana republics. We must avoid being counted among them.

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