Opinion

As students burn books and commuters burn trains, a befuddled government looks on

19 August 2018 - 00:00

Higher education & training minister Naledi Pandor, prodded by the opposition, told parliament last week the total cost of the orgy of burning and looting and indiscriminate destruction that had been the hallmark of life in many of the country's institutions of higher learning in the past three years was close to R800m.
It's a humongous figure, but it's an underestimation. It was delivered matter-of-factly. She didn't linger on the subject, and I can't blame her. There doesn't seem to have been any intention to take the country into her confidence, to explain the enormity of this crisis; its implications for the institutions and the delivery of education; what is being done, by the police or the institutions themselves, to bring the perpetrators to book; and what measures, if any, were being taken to ensure such acts are not repeated.
No politician is ever keen to be the bearer of bad tidings. The figure was simply plonked in our midst. No explanation, no condemnation of these senseless acts. The government, by its silence and inaction, is unfortunately encouraging violent behaviour in society. Such indiscriminate behaviour should be condemned outright, without equivocation, from every available platform. It has no place in a democracy. Period.
It simply beggars belief that not a single individual has been brought to book for the wanton destruction, most of it carried out in broad daylight. Not even a word of whether there's any investigation going on to identify and arrest suspects.What sort of students are these? They're thugs, not students. Students go to university to study, not to burn down the buildings. What sort of students wilfully set fire to libraries full of books? What do their parents have to say about their children's heroic achievements? Do they also see it as a revolutionary act?
The government has not simply lost the plot; it seems to have lost the will to govern. SA has become a lawless jungle. Maybe the ANC has been in power for much too long.
Recently, 11 railway coaches were set alight at Cape Town station on a fine Saturday afternoon. Nobody has been arrested and nobody is saying anything in this regard. It's doubtful anybody will ever be brought to book for damage estimated at more than R30m. Destruction on such a scale is not even an isolated incident. Some 118 coaches were reportedly burnt between 2015 and 2017. The figure is now obviously far higher, given what's been happening this year.
This is a national emergency which requires the personal attention of the president himself. But then there are probably more votes to be won in holding symbolic tête-à-têtes in swish hotels to talk about pit latrines in rural schools than bothering about burning trains. We could do both, I guess, but that's assuming we're able to chew gum and walk at the same time.Blade Nzimande, who as higher education minister had presided over the devastation at universities and is now Thuma Mina's new transport minister, recently wandered into a railway depot in Cape Town and was aghast at the destruction. He asked a senior policeman who could be responsible. Any suspects? The man said he didn't know. It was an honest answer. Nobody has a clue. This country is on autopilot. We're vulnerable and exposed. Looting is the only thing our leaders seem good at.
But it's not only outside forces that seem able to thwart this government; its friends or allies have almost become, or behave like, the enemy within. At Eskom the unions are on the rampage. Management had initially - quite rightly - tabled a zero increase because the entity is bankrupt. But Pravin Gordhan intervened and pushed management to up the offer. Now a beleaguered management has repeatedly been forced to go up, the offer now at 7.5%. But the unions also want a bonus from an entity on its knees.Their argument is they're not responsible. That's true, but the fact is there's no money. Disgruntled workers have been damaging substations to force management's hand. That's sabotage. Those responsible should be behind bars, not negotiating increases.
Some of those encouraging the unions to tough it out are the people who propelled Jacob Zuma to power and who subsequently denuded parastatals such as Eskom and Transnet. These people have neither shame nor contrition.
Out in the streets, with the cost of living going higher and service delivery degenerating, the people are becoming even more rebellious. A protest is not complete if it's not violent or destructive. And after Marikana, the police are reluctant to act against violent demonstrators. There was hope in certain circles of some improvements in policing when Bheki Cele became the minister. But this week Cele was in parliament reporting the good news that some of his men have been arrested for cash-in-transit heists. One has to wonder who will police the police. It's a dire state of affairs.
The government is weak. It's almost as though it's in some trance, a state of utter paralysis. Is it about not rocking the boat before the elections? And are votes for the ruling party far more important than the security and prosperity of the country?
The lawlessness has been allowed to go on for too long now, without consequences. It has to stop.
How to get this genie back into the bottle is Ramaphosa's biggest challenge. And that has to happen before we can even begin to talk seriously about fixing the mess in education and in health, dealing with rampaging crime and corruption, and growing the economy. It's a tall order.

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