It has been a year since South Africans dejectedly went to the 2029 polls in what independent observers widely regard as a rigged set of elections. An all-powerful, and once popular, socialist government has destroyed South Africa's democracy. The economy continues its decline and no end appears in sight to the hell that South Africans have lived through over the past decade.
Fighting your way through the stench and expanse of litter that surrounds major urban areas and small towns, you cannot escape the growing impoverishment of South Africa. Streets are badly potholed and road markings have faded. Road signs are absent as urban decay sets in. The rural countryside reveals mile after mile of abandoned farms. The civil service displays the two worst attributes of African post-colonial administrations: cruelty and incompetence. Corruption is rife. South Africa shows all the signs of being the archetype of a failed post-colonial African state.
South Africans who return from abroad to visit say that what they notice most is that almost nothing new seems to have been built over the past decade
South Africans who return from abroad to visit say that what they notice most is that almost nothing new seems to have been built over the past decade, an observation that bears out the fact that since the fiscal crisis of the late 2010s the South African government has not had the resources to build on its former service delivery successes. Housing delivery, or rather its absence, is an example of the stagnation that has set in. Almost no new urban or rural housing delivery has occurred for the past decade, and shack settlements have sprawled amidst the decaying RDP houses built 10 or 20 years ago. So serious has the backlog become that the proportion of families in an informal house is again increasing, contrary to the trend in South Africa's first 20 years as a democracy.
Electricity and water delivery services are erratic. Regular power outages have become an inescapable part of life in urban South Africa, with the poorer urban peripheries being the worst affected. Water quality has declined as infrastructure cannot be maintained because the municipalities have neither the skills nor the budgets to do so. In many communities drinking water verges on being toxic and outbreaks of waterborne disease are common. Child deaths are regularly seen as a direct result of the infrastructural neglect by municipal authorities.
It is a pathetic sight to observe many people continuing to wait in desperation and demand that the government delivers on promises that now cannot possibly be met.
Living standards in poor communities were dealt a particularly crippling blow by the collapse of the government's once-expansive welfare programme. Grant payments, which once made up a significant source of the income of poor households, have become erratic. In many areas payments are not made for many months. Even when they do take place, in real terms the payments have fallen so far behind the rate of inflation that the value they contribute to many poor households is much less than it would have been 10 years ago. A series of scandals has seen political leaders redirect money meant for grant payments into their own accounts. It is a pathetic sight to observe many people continuing to wait in desperation and demand that the government delivers on promises that now cannot possibly be met.
Research done by foreign development organisations reveals what is all too easy to see − that poverty measures have increased across the board. Child malnutrition rates have increased and a significant proportion of households cannot meet their basic food needs. Stillbirth rates have increased. The proportion of the population living on less than $2 per day, a number that was insignificant just a decade ago, is climbing year after year. Life expectancy is falling again as a new HIV and AIDS pandemic takes hold in a country that can no longer afford to finance a large-scale antiretroviral programme.
South Africa's middle classes have seen their living standards fall as the combination of a collapsing currency and hyper-inflation tore into their savings and pensions.
While the greatest hardship is experienced in poor communities, South Africa's middle classes have seen their living standards fall as the combination of a collapsing currency and hyperinflation tore into their savings and pensions. Only those with significant foreign currency holdings or relations overseas have seen their living standards withstand the economic storms that have battered the country. Yet even this group struggles to repatriate funds in the face of a hostile government that tries to force them to convert foreign currency imports at official exchange rates into local currency units that have very little value.
The wealthiest of households have tried to take care of their own water and electricity provision through boreholes and solar systems and by bringing in private refuse removal providers, but nonsensical government regulations get in the way. Local authorities, for example, have blocked middle-class neighbourhoods from introducing private refuse removal services. The police service has banned neighbourhood watch schemes and the state has nationalised private security providers. State planners say they will not allow elitist neighbourhoods to flourish, calling them a racist attempt at undermining the government's service delivery efforts.
It comes as no surprise that emigration has seen the size of the white middle class fall sharply, especially in the younger age groups.
It comes as no surprise that emigration has seen the size of the white middle class fall sharply, especially in the younger age groups. Much of what remains of that class is at or nearing retirement age. There has also been a geographical shift in where that middle class resides – out of the northern parts of the country into the Western Cape, where they live in what remains of South Africa's mostly white middle-class neighbourhoods – trapped, essentially, in a country that resents them but from which they are unable to escape.
The irony is that while both middle classes are sinking, the black middle class continues to direct a stream of vitriol at the white middle class
Not having the option to emigrate, the black middle class has seen its size diminish owing to declining real wage levels in the civil service as well as the fact that the economy has been in recession for much of the past decade and domestic business opportunities are limited. They are also trapped in a declining economy in which only the politically connected elite have been able to maintain some semblance of their earlier living standards. The country's politics is, however, so volatile that even for that elite consistently maintaining a middle-class lifestyle has become a trial – as different factions fall in and out of favour.
The irony is that while both middle classes are sinking, the black middle class continues to direct a stream of vitriol at the white middle class, blaming it for the mess the country is in. For the most part white people don't retaliate, simply putting up with the abuse and too afraid to say anything for fear that an argument could result in an even worse backlash. They grumble at their dinner parties and social gatherings about how the government has run the country into the ground, but these views are never expressed in public.
** This is an excerpt from A Time Traveller's Guide to South Africa in 2030 by Frans Cronje (Tafelberg, 2017). This book is available online or at all good bookstores at R260.