Today I am crying for the beloved country and city of my childhood and early adulthood. I am grieving for the scores of hapless people who died in the Johannesburg apartment block last week. The death of at least 12 children, including a one-year-old, just tears at my heart.
The night-time fire that ripped through the rundown apartment block in the city’s central business district is a searing reflection of just how much is going wrong in South Africa today.
It’s a country with one of the highest unemployment rates, tens of thousands of young people (including the well-educated) cannot find work, poverty is endemic, and there is no reliable welfare network to hold the many desperate people.
The numbers of homeless around Johannesburg are numbing (15,000-20,000, with some 50,000 and possibly up to 100,000 in Gauteng Province). So, unsurprisingly, there is violence and crime and misery. There’s also a wide gap between the wealthy and the privileged, and the poor and the discarded. And, unlike apartheid South Africa, it is no longer simply the gap between the whites and other races.
You can explain and rationalise the unemployment, and the fall in educational and living standards, as part of the long legacy of the brutal apartheid system, which gave so little to so many.
It’s much harder to explain the mega-corruption, the state capture of democratic decision-making during the term of former Prime Minister Jacob Zuma, by ruthless politicians and oligarchs like the Guptas. The daily blackouts across the country, euphemistically referred to as load shedding, are not the result of inheritance but rather of gross negligence.
On my recent visit to South Africa, the best-selling book was that of the CEO Andre de Ruyter, about the Eskom power utility from 2020-23. Entitled Truth to Power, it is a deeply disturbing account of criminality and corruption at all levels, including an attempt to poison him. The Economist quotes him saying: ”You can put solar on your roof, live in a gated estate, have private security, earn a holiday home. But if 90% of the population are suffering, how is that sustainable?”
The acute problems with basic services like water, electricity and provision of security are a failure of the government. The fact that the inferno took place in a condemned building, owned by the Johannesburg municipality, but “hijacked” by a criminal cartel exploiting migrants and the dirt poor, is indicative of the anarchy of this city.
In the words of Alan Paton in his iconic novel, Cry the Beloved Country, “the tragedy is not [only] that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again”. It was, as the former US Ambassador to South Africa commented, a disaster waiting to happen. The signs were there, the warnings given; this is only one of many similar tenements. Ironically, this very building once housed the infamous office on Albert Street where non-whites had their “pass books”, their very freedom of movement, curtailed by the Apartheid authorities.
I recall watching a play by South African playwrights about this notorious place, titled Woza Albert!, and their words come to me now like a haunting prognostication: “Be careful, my friend, of the anger in your heart. For Morena will return and bear witness to our lives on earth and there will be no place to hide. He will point his holy finger and there will be those who rise to heaven and those who burn in hell.”
This event is about the failure of the ruling ANC party to plan beyond immediate political concerns, and worse, the failure of the government to address the deep and frighteningly alarming degree of corruption.
On my visit to Johannesburg earlier this year, all of the fear and angst, corruption and cronyism, neglect and suffering were on display. And this was just as a casual returnee, comfortably insulated in the little bubble of the Johannesburg Jewish community. Nevertheless, I didn’t have to travel far to see the potholes in the affluent suburbs, to experience the lack of power in my mother’s apartment, to hear the news of awful attacks and robberies. To listen to the worries about a complete breakdown of logistics and infrastructure.
I didn’t have to travel far to see the desperation. At almost every traffic light, which they still quaintly call robots, you are assailed by beggars and hawkers and people so beaten by life they seem virtually robotic. You are advised to keep your windows rolled up and if you feel moved by the plight of the hustlers, don’t open your windows too wide as they may reach in with a knife or a gun or just grab your bag.
There is something deeply eerie in travelling down one of the main roads at 8pm during a blackout when there are no streetlights and thus no obvious landmarks to guide you. The proverbial phrase “darkness of Egypt”, referring to the Biblical plague of dark night in ancient Egypt, comes to mind.
The most heart rending moment of my visit was the sight of a beautiful Madonna-like young woman at one of the traffic lights. She appeared to have collapsed in exhaustion (or was in a deep sleep) and was lying on the pavement strip in the middle of a busy intersection. That was confronting enough, but what really tore at me were the two young infants clutching at her, their eyes bewildered and hopeless.
I am haunted by the helplessness I felt at that moment – I wanted to help but was caught in the moving traffic with no way to stop. I still wonder if I should have tried to do something, gone back and called the police, despite their inept and alarming record.
I spent my short visit in the Jewish “Caulfield” of Joburg called Glenhazel. I was in the cocoon of family and dear old friends. A comfortable suburb with beautiful gardens but high electrified walls, constantly patrolled by a private armed security force. The kosher restaurants are buzzing, the shuls and schools, shtiebels and shops pumping.
Despite having spent most of my life out of Africa, the place still stirs me like no other. I am in awe of the resilience and religiosity in the face of the fear and fragility. There is something brave and bold in so many people – the homeless man who decides to direct the traffic when the lights aren’t working in the hope that somebody will give him a few coins; the many ordinary individuals in the Jewish and general community raising money and running services for the homeless; the remarkable and gregarious black women caring for the aged in the sprawling Jewish Aged Home. And the myriad charitable services, including Jewish ones, that responded to the fire. Not to mention the visionary and generous business leaders who do care for this beloved country – even if many of them are White middle aged men, and perhaps even Jewish!
There may be a shortage of electric power but again, in the words of Alan Paton: “there is only one thing that has power completely, and this is love. Because, when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power”.
There is much to cry about in South Africa today, but this ancient land also has deep subterranean rivers of compassion, conviction and courage. There is still love here and, as American writer Thornton Wilder notes, the bridge between life and death is love, the only survival, the only meaning.