New SA is a lot like UK in the 1970s
I was in Kloof Street the other day, buying candles. Natch. There is an odd sense of familiarity I get when I see Price's candles on the shelves in South Africa. I grew up close to the original factory on the banks of the Thames in London and we all used to bundle into the sky-blue Cortina and make a day of it-buying candles in the factory outlet shop. Britain did not have much to do in the 1970s.When people tell you things were much better in the old days, don't believe them. Buying candles in winter and having the Cortina ripped apart by baboons at Windsor Safari Park in summer was about it. "Roll on summer" was the general consensus.Throwing the pack of candles into the trolley, my mind was immediately transported back to the darkness of my childhood. Power cuts. We had a lot of them. As a child there is a certain romanticism to having the lights suddenly go out and then slowly shrouding the house in a flickering yellow pall of semi-illumination. The reality of it was grim though.The UK's electricity network was falling apart and vulnerable to mechanical failure or industrial action. The country leant heavily on the supply of oil from the Middle East and all it took was yet another dust-up with Israel and some clumsy diplomacy in the region from the Western powers and the Arab nations decided not to send any more of the black stuff their way.The dominoes were tumbling. Inflation put its takkies on and headed towards the high 20s. Unemployment fancied a bit of exercise too. The Conservative government tried to impose a policy restricting prices and income. A red rag to the bullish unions. Coal miners went on strike. The electricity could only operate sporadically. The country worked a three-day week to conserve power. The Cortina headed to Battersea to stock up. The Conservatives lost the election.Things should have become far better and to some extent they did. The beast of inflation was temporarily tamed, but in hindsight, the dominoes were still falling. The new government spent heavily on the public sector in order to create jobs and bureaucracy was rampant. The currency was weakening, which left the economy vulnerable and the storm clouds of general strikes bruised the sky.The unions had brokered unprecedented power to wield over the Labour Party at election time in return for delivering lower pay claims. But the wheels came off at high speed when the CEO of Ford granted himself an 80% pay rise while offering workers 5%. The pigs were seen to be at the trough and Ford factories ground to a halt. When Ford capitulated and granted a 17% pay rise, the game was up. Workers all over the country started to go on strike, realising that the government would buckle to its knees under the weight of its own public-sector monster.The edges of memory become blurred with time, but I remember rubbish was everywhere. So were rats. January 1979 smelled terrible as rotting bin bags piled up in the streets. It was freezing in Britain that winter. For four weeks in a row it was sub zero every day. With no electricity.The news consisted of government ministers telling us to use as little power as possible and pictures of Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan in some gaudy swimming trunks as he enjoyed the surf in Barbados.When Callaghan returned to icy Britain, he seemed to be indifferent to the plight of the nation. The papers led with headlines of "Crisis. What crisis?"Then an angry ginger comb-over called Arthur Scargill went head to head with a heavily lacquered bouffant called Margaret Thatcher to see who had the heaviest cojones. Poor Arthur.The power suppliers have been deregulated in Britain now. All part of the giant public-sector sell-off that funded the debauched, champagne-swigging renaissance of the 1980s.The weakening currency, the regular strikes, the bristling discontent, the growing public- sector burden, the politicians who laugh at the despairing electorate and the need for a painful battle over ideology all seem so clear it could be yesterday.Or tomorrow. I get confused in the darkness.