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RIP the South African Middle Class

I've always been a bleeding heart liberal. I really hope that despite strong opinions I’ve had in life, my true motive is that of equality and freedom for all.

Which is why, recently, I'm disappointed in myself.

I watched our newly-re-elected president give his victory speech last week and it sickened me. At once, I was a racist, an intellectual snob, a socialist and a communist. I wanted the man assassinated. I didn’t trust his election results and I hated his speech. Sadly, there have been many moments over the last five years, or possibly even longer, where I have marvelled at the fact that the man is the best that the ANC can do. I have marvelled at the fact that ‘the people’ elect a man who has been accused of rape, arms deals, corruption, polygamy, more corruption and idiocy. He has said things that made George W seem like a microphysicists and been found tainted by criminal brushes so filthy yet he’s completely skirted the idea that one will be judged by the company you keep.

But there’s a big part of me that feels that so long as the people are happy, I am happy. A government that is ruled by the majority is a good system. A government that allows all people to express an opinion and vote for a free leader is wonderful. But when said government takes the piss of those who have entrusted our nation to them, it makes the bile rise.

And said moron, JZ, did just that when he ungraciously, arrogantly and ignorantly applauded his party’s victory in the elections which took place last week.

No one would allow an American candidate to run if he had been accused of the same crimes as JZ has, but this is Africa and things are done differently here. Clinton was impeached for doing far less in secret than what JZ does in public, but we haven’t called for the political lynch mob on him at all. His sexual and personal exploits are largely applauded as his rights as the man-in-charge. But that part has always been something I was willing to overlook because he ‘got’ the people and they loved him.

Yet this speech, which was in front of a massive crowd of supporters, got rave reviews. He told them all, “there is nothing wrong with Nkandla,” and they cheered. Don’t they know that he is living in a home that is a hundred thousand times’ more than what most South African maids earn? He slammed the opposition, without once graciously congratulating them on their national progress. There was no talk of ‘working together for a greater country’ or ‘thank you for keeping us on our toes’ – he simply insulted and belittled them. I wasn’t proud of that man in that moment. I was not a proudly South African South African in that moment either.

Then he quoted Shakespeare. How. Bloody. Ridiculous. I know English people who don’t understand the Bard. I am a Masters graduate who at times doesn’t understand the Bard. Why, my dear, uneducated Zulu-speaking president, would you quote SHAKESPEARE? Although, ironically, the words he chose to quote were:
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That part seemed apt.

You see, I don’t see a leader when I see this man. Not after this speech. He seemed to be out there to disprove the doubters and make his followers gawk at his majesty. It makes me question the intelligence of his followers then. In fact, when I saw that he was still going to win two thirds of the electorate, it made me question the authenticity of our IEC election results. It just doesn’t seem possible.

As a leader, as a party, the ANC has failed ‘the people.’ And if you don’t believe me, then let me give you a few real life examples.

My gardener has just turned sixty. He’s still healthy and fit and works well. He’s an ex police reservist and an enormous help to our family. I don’t mean it lightly when I say that there are times I absolutely love this man. He has been told that it is time for him to retire, (NOT by us!) and now feels that it’s a good idea to apply for his state pension. It means, essentially, that he would earn two thirds less per month. He supports five unemployed children, a wife, two daughter’s-in-law, two grandchildren and himself. How does this make sense to him? Well, the ANC campaigner told him that he was now entitled to this grant and who wouldn’t want to earn money whilst doing nothing? But he would lose two thirds of his income. But he could sit at home all day. But he would have to make his little bit of money, just over R1300, go much farther than his current salary at three times that amount. But the government will look after him while he stews at home all day. Sounds like a seriously crappy deal to me.

Our gardener’s daughter, a young, pretty twenty year old, works as our nanny. We employed her so that he had one less child to support and almost over night the household income doubled. She’s amazing: well-spoken, hard working and incredibly kind to my children. She too is an asset and blessing to our home. But she’s just fallen pregnant now, hasn’t she. That is a natural by-product of sexual activity and its not really something you can punish a person for, as much as I wish she had waited until she was a little older, perhaps in a relationship with a steady partner… its just one of those things. When I asked her what she was going to do about the baby’s care once she had delivered the child, she said that she would stop work and look after the baby herself for a while. Commendable, it’s just what I have done, except she is relying on her government child support grant to carry her. Wonderful. Except that is R310. That’s exactly one tin of formula and half a bag of nappies. It won’t even touch sides. Thanks ANC. That’s a great help.

And finally, a handyman who lives down the road from us came knocking on my door at ten to six one morning. His wife had delivered a still-born. Well, not his wife. Or his ‘primary’ wife, just some girl who had been living with him in his wife’s absence. The three-and-a-half-month premature infant was lying dead on his lounge floor. What do we need to do to help you? I asked him, they were both clearly quite upset. We need to get to our homeland to bury the baby. What?? No hospital? Apparently not necessary because this type of thing happens all the time and all they need to do to do right by the child is perform a burial in the mother’s home land. I insisted that the mother gets to a clinic to be checked, but when I called for an ambulance, they said it would take about three hours. So we drove her there ourselves and the doctor who finally saw her said that she was fine and that she should take the infant, now wrapped in a towel, to her homeland to bury it there. The doctor probably sees this all too frequently as well. Within the three hour ambulance waiting period, we had her at her homeland and burying her baby. No coffin, no pew leaflet, hardly any mourners. Not to sound crass, but it reminded me of us burying my puppy when it died when I was a child. And it struck me how cheap life seemed, how brutal her existence must be when she can lose a child and still stand next to the graveside the same day. And I thought, where is the government counsellor helping this woman, giving her birth control so that we’re not here again in six months? Where is the doctor performing tests to ascertain what caused the miscarriage or an autopsy on the child? Have we ‘first worlders’ complicated our lives by requiring too much care from our medical professionals? No. I just don’t think the state medical funding stretches that far. She, the mother, will never have answers and needs to accept this terrible sadness as ’just one of those things.’

So, how has the government helped these three people? I don’t see much at all. Yes, the ANC, together with the Nationalist Government, ended Apartheid and brought about freedom. But many South Africans, especially those living in townships and poor communities, live lives in danger of violent crime daily. Yes, they can go to hospitals for free and yes they can get some help from the government in terms of funding, but there’s a scary thing happening to those earning slightly more than minimum wage: they’re becoming destitute.

You see, if you earn nothing, R310 for a baby is better than that. But if you earn what many nannies in South Africa earn, about R2500, R310 is way below what you require to live off. Same goes for the government pension, R1350 is not enough for a retired person to make a life when they have been earning closer to R3000. Yes, it is better than nothing, when you are earning nothing, so it’s not to be scoffed at for the impoverished people in our country. Yet, these folks, like our gardener, our nanny, the handyman, all earn just enough to be above the national minimum requirements; their lives are slightly, or more than slightly better than people who have nothing or next to nothing.

So, if I was a conspiracy theorist, I would say that it suits the government to have so many poor people and so many uneducated adults because they appreciate the paltry offerings of crumbs from the royal table. Those who are in the upper-most economic bracket don’t need a government subsidy for education or hospitalisation and will only complain about how bad the roads are because the potholes hurt their fancy tyres. The poor, the uneducated, don’t see the injustice of a private presidential homestead that could have paid for two hundred thousand pensioner’s grants because they haven’t even heard about it – or if they have, they don’t understand the magnitude of it.

I'm not saying everyone who supports the ANC is stupid, not at all. But we do live in a country where almost a quarter of all South Africans live below the breadline, with high numbers of adult illiteracy and our education standards in certain schools questionable at best, the fact that the ‘vast majority’ voted for the ruling party without even looking into the opposition parties or what they had to offer, makes this bleeding heart liberal pretty pissed off.

I accept and value loyalty and understand the notion that many South Africans will never vote for a white person simply because they lived through Apartheid and will never trust white governments again. There is a generation of South Africans to which this mindset applies. I accept that there are members of this party who are intelligent, diligent, hardworking, honest, forward-thinking individuals; I just wish they would make their voices heard or perhaps run for president.

Once upon a time, I actually believe that a country where we have a strong national party that keeps the majority of power is a good thing, (although a slightly stronger opposition would be great,) knowing that most of South Africa is behind someone and happy with national leadership can only be good for national morale. These days, I wish there was more accountability in our nation’s highest office.

Here is the heart of my problem – this guy stands up and basically tells his followers that if you don’t support the ANC you don’t support South Africa; that he has squandered tax payer’s money on a personal home and there’s nothing wrong with that and hasn’t got the humility or grace to congratulate his opposition on ALL of them fighting for a better South Africa. His grants are enough to keep the poor out of the poor houses, but not enough to keep a middle class as a middle class. His medical care, public transport, crime prevention and basic service deliveries are all only just as good as what they need to be to exist or slightly better; but nowhere near good enough to be classified as great efforts.

And so the poor have more than they could ask for, or so it seems. Those who live below the breadline and are humbly awaiting more from the king – they are living in a country where understandably they may well feel looked after. They vote for the man who looks after them. Because when you have nothing, even crumbs are a lot.

But the middle class, those who are earning more than minimum wage and working hard; those nannies and gardeners and handymen and secretaries and teachers and policemen and drivers and waiters and road workers and rubbish collectors… those folks don’t qualify for grants and don’t earn enough to live well. Those folks don’t get subsidised education or hospitalisation or funerals or transport.

Those folks battle to make ends meet and don’t eat meat regularly because it costs too much and share a car pool or walk to work because petrol is expensive and if their kids come home with an unexpected expense from school it literally means that this week, either dad or mom will have to work double shifts in order to pay the bill.

But largely, based on the election results, they still vote for a government that doesn’t look after their needs. They still vote for a president who uses their taxes to pave roads in a township among dirt tracks. They still vote for a guy who quotes Macbeth to them even though they don’t have the money to send their children to school to learn how to read Shakespeare properly. They still vote for a man who can stand jovially singing and being arrogant about his election victory in a country where a woman is raped every thirty seconds, including his own wife.

And who gets to fill the gap? Who has to fit the bill for this foolishness? Well, I do, of course. And you do. And everyone else in this country who has a Rand here or there to spare. You see, my gardener wants to take retirement at sixty but still work one or two days a week and earn a salary here. My nanny, all of twenty years old, has already said that I can give her all my old baby clothes for her child and she can come back and bring the baby when she returns to work. Or better yet, leave baby at home with grandma. Our handyman friend didn’t even think twice about asking for money for a burial blanket for his child, transport all over the countryside, two day’s paid leave. This lovely, liberal government leaves us no choice because we can’t fire people for having babies or turning sixty, (not that we want to,) we simply don’t have a say in the matter. Because we know how tough it is to make a living and to have a life, we help. It’s almost obligatory because we sympathise.

You see, Jacob Zuma needed those big walls and serious security, not to protect himself from crime, although the irony of that alone is worthy of a blog post, but to stop people ringing his bell to ask for help. He’s literally cut the middle class off at the knees and expects us all to look after ourselves; ubuntu means that we must care for one another and those that have to spare need to give to those who don’t. We need to share our assets. And then also give to the poor because we’re good people. And you must give until it hurts. And then pay our taxes so that the president doesn’t go without.

You see, I am the middle class and my government right now is doing nothing much for me. I have nowhere else to call home but I hate that my president makes such a mockery of what I see as true leadership. Although heavily taxed, wealth and corruption seem to be doing okay in Zuma’s South Africa. But the average Joe, like me, well, I give them taxes and they give me Nkandla. I pay rates and they collect my rubbish, often a day or two late. I pay fuel levies and fight broken tar, e-tolls, dark streetlights and speeding blue light brigades. Thanks very much Mr Zuma. Needless to say, I didn’t vote for you or your party. Does that mean I am not a South African? Does that mean I don’t get to live here? Your speech last week almost went as far as to say that.  

Like your disowned and equally moronic protégée Juju, you can't tell me what makes you a better South African than me, or a more deserving one. This is my home and before I shuffle off this mortal coil, to quote your friend Bill Shakespeare, I pray I live to see a truly wonderful leader emerge from your part and lead South Africa to it’s full potential.

After visiting Cape Town and after watching how so many people streamed to the polls last week, I was feeling very positive about our blossoming democracy leading up until the elections. I hate that I’m feel this negative right now, and I promise to work on myself. Like I said, it’s a disappointing reaction. But in the mean time, lets all take a minute of silence to mourn the slow and ever approaching death of the South African Middle Class.


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