South Africa’s Obsession With Trivia

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

By Rejoice Ngwenya, Harare 

Rejoice Ngwenya hangs his boots on  Zimbabwe, his home, and delves into the throes of a struggling South Africa  shrilling away at unimportant events while  caressing its “trinity of evil” personified by crime, disease and poverty, the real nation wreckers that could mar the beauty of the FIFA World Cup 2010. 

South Africans are a strange lot with a knack for trivia even when confronted with life-threatening tragedies. One would have thought they have learnt a lesson after the blistering criticism for the unforgivable xenophobic attacks on fellow African aliens last year.  But now, even where the FIFA World Cup 2010 clock is ticking dangerously towards the goal line, the ‘rainbow nation’ is engrossed in the cameo tale of a disgraced sporting cheat, choosing to downplay the trinity of evil personified by crime, HIV/Aids and poverty.

I cannot for one fleeting moment believe that gold medallist ‘Miss’ Caster Semenya, who won the women’s 800m in a time of 1:55:45 in Berlin on August 19, did not for once doubt her own eligibility to compete in a women’s race. She confirmed everyone except her mother doubts her sex. The South African media goes to galactic heights to make us believe that ‘poor’ Semenya is an innocent teenager being pounded and hounded by a hostile, reactionary Caucasian press. She must have seen it coming. Eighteen is the universal age of majority where by then; most teenagers have experimented with everything adult and beyond! Athletics South Africa [ASA] president Leonard Chuene exacerbates the tragedy by lying to the world, then South Africans raise a frenzied paranoia of patriotism in blaming everybody except themselves for the Chuene expose.  Some, like maverick local ANC youth hero Julius Malema, go to the extent of evoking the all-too-easy race card!

My point is that South Africans, in just over 200 days’ time, will be hosting a million soccer visitors, so it takes the haemoglobin out of me to figure out why they are so obsessed with such trivia when crime statistics are soaring trough the proverbial roof thatch. Mail & Guardian online is onto a story that former police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi ‘faces two charges of corruption and one of defeating the ends of justice relating to payments he allegedly received from ex-Hyundai boss Billy Rautenbach, and slain mining boss Brett Kebble and his associate Glenn Agliotti, who is accused of murdering Kebble’. Now, this is big time crime of godfather mafia proportion that shows the malignancy of political appointees in South Africa’s patronised justice system. When you then hear that perennial Zimbabwean trouble causer Billy Rautenbach is in the game, one wonders how safe soccer fans will be in 2010 in a country where police habitually collude with criminals.

By the way Mr Rautenbach is not exactly welcome in Botswana either, where he sent hundreds of Batswana workers into the cold after conveniently closing his car assembly plant. His business tentacles now spread from the diamond mines of Democratic Republic of Congo to the sand valleys of Save River in southern Zimbabwe. Most political analysts whisper how he is at the fringes of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF business empire, of late accounting for evicted villagers from a giant ranch that was snatched from the late ZAPU nationalist Joshua Nkomo’s estate. Reports are that Rautenbach had been wanted on fraud charges since he skipped South Africa in 1999 but through political contacts in the ruling ANC, he forked out R40-million fine to settle the case with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). A case of the rich are guilty until they buy up their innocence!

Instead of investing in safety and security advocacy, the ANC burns Rands in publicity stunts to ‘comfort’ Semenya while their country is scotched by favelas, poverty, under-world crime and disease. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has pulled out political misfits Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang from the archives to ‘mobilise civil society, the government, corporate South Africa and the sport fraternity, not only in support of Semenya, but also to ascertain the extent of the prevalence of intersex people in the country and how this should be addressed.’ So even if the Mo Ibrahim latest figures show that South Africa has taken a high 70.28 in ’safety and rule of law’ and in the top ten of well-governed African countries, for a country rated as one of the most dangerous places on earth to accrue those kind of high marks raises a myriad of questions.

My point is that good governance is more than just fancy development figures. Where there is no clear definition between the ruling party and government, we have a right to seek divine intervention. Right now you have Trevor Manuel who should have long retired still hanging out in the corridors of power under a mysterious title called ‘minister in the presidency responsible for the national planning commission’. Never mind that Ebrahim Patel is the minister of economic development. Then there is this Judge, Nkola Motata, being dragged to court on a drunken driving charge! So far, President Jacob Zuma has had to deal with numerous cases of industrial action as South Africans demand a convergence between electoral promises and real-life service delivery. I have not even mentioned that former NPA boss Bulelani Ngcuka had also a ‘damning relationship’ with murder suspect Agliotti. Breath-taking drama that would make any Hollywood crime script writer green with envy!

In this treatise, I am cautious not to confuse the workings of a functional, healthy democracy with lawlessness. After all, the mere fact that some of these cases are published reflects an overt political system, but I am not too convinced that at micro-level, the ordinary South African who has to grapple with demands of daily life cares much for Caster Semenya’s psycho-social support.  Cash heists, subdued armed robbers sprawling on the tarmac in pools of blood, passengers grimacing in pain as victims of bus terminus shoot outs between rival taxi gangs, blown up ATM cash dispensers, shattered jewellery cabinets, drivers slumped in comatose after botched up car-jacking … the litany of South African weekly crime action is endless. Says Suren Pillay: “The high level of crime indicates that there is a very low regard among many for the shared rights and obligations of living in a political community.” All we can say is ‘cry the beloved country’. 

Mr. Ngwenya is columnist of and President of Coalition for Liberal Market Solutions, a think tank in Harare.