Try explaining South Africa to a German

William Bowler says one would have to begin with our President and his four wives and twenty plus children

Some years ago the outspoken Irish columnist, Kevin Myers, penned a piece for the Irish Independent challenging readers to try explaining aspects of Irish life to a German. With due acknowledgement to him, let’s pose the same challenge to our countrymen about life in South Africa.

Here goes. Try explaining to Heinrich (or Heidi or Jürgen or Frieda) that the President of the country is a polygamist with a current tally of four wives and more than twenty children. Despite this conjugal plenty, he is not averse to having a bit on the side, including siring a child by a woman nearly thirty years his junior, the daughter of one of his old friends (now presumably an ex-friend). Before becoming President, he had government responsibility for an initiative known as the Moral Regeneration Movement.

Then explain to your German friend that the President has a luxurious, sprawling private homestead in a remote rural part of the country, a homestead of many dwellings that has had a “security upgrade” at a cost to the taxpayer of twenty million dollars. The “security” features include a huge swimming pool, a cattle pen, a chicken run, an amphitheatre and a tuckshop from which his senior wife sells stuff to the impoverished locals.

On finding that these improvements were in no way relevant to the security of our head of state, the Public Protector, whose office is charged with investigating improper conduct and abuse of power in State affairs, invited him to make an appropriate personal contribution towards their cost. His response was to ask his Police Minister, a man beholden to the President for his handsomely-paid Cabinet job, to investigate. Unsurprisingly, this sycophant found that the swimming pool etc. were security essentials and not a cent needed to be paid for them out of the President’s own pocket.

Tell him or her that there are annual coming-of-age rituals in parts of the country during which, in the name of “culture”, young men are crudely circumcised in primitive, unhygienic conditions by older men with no medical training whatsoever. The resultant deaths of some initiates and the permanent mutilation of many others trigger a brief outcry, but no action is taken and the carnage is repeated the following year.

Explain that our largest construction companies were found guilty and heavily fined by the Competition Board for massive collusion in tendering for major contracts such as the 2010 World Cup stadiums, yet their top executives said they had no idea what was going on and blamed it all on rogue underlings. Also explain that the award to us of that year’s World Cup appears to have been achieved thanks to a ten million dollar payment into an account controlled by a crooked Caribbean FIFA executive. However, our blustering Sports Minister angrily refutes any suggestion that this was a bribe, insisting that the enormously generous “donation” was for football development in a part of the “African diaspora” on the other side of the world, where Africa is about as remote as Mars to most of its inhabitants.

Also explain that the board of the State-owned public broadcaster sees fit to appoint as chief operating officer a man found by the Public Protector to have lied about his qualifications – faking his school-leaving status – and to have increased his salary irregularly while filling the position in an acting capacity. Unconcerned by these findings, the Communications Minister ratifies the decision and terms it “rational”. In Goebbels-like fashion, the COO decrees that 70% of all news programmes must be “good stories”, this in a country riven by corruption, violent crime, huge unemployment and abysmal education and health services.

Tell him or her that some women in our country are prepared to abandon their unwanted newly born babies, dumping them somewhere to die, because they believe that the alternative of giving them up for adoption by loving parents will enrage their ancestors. These women have the vote.

In the same vein, that workers involved in violent strikes believe themselves immune from being harmed by police action because they have imbibed a foul concoction, sometimes containing human body parts, made by witchdoctors known by the quaint euphemism of “traditional healers”. All these people also have the vote.

Explain a host of other things, such as our Communist Party leaders occupying powerful positions in government even though the party has never contested an election; the beneficiaries of arms deal bribery; Brett Kebble and the country’s largest-ever fraud, for which not a single person has gone to jail; the Agriculture Minister paying his own farmworker just a third of the stipulated minimum wage; and so on and so on.

And, as Kevin Myers said in his piece, when you’ve done explaining it all to your German friend, please explain it to me.

William Bowler