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Is the Long Night Coming?

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on November 30, 2019 12:36

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Prophets of doom are not rare. People react more predictably to news of danger. Fear is a better driver of political control than hope. Good news does not sell papers. I prefer to discount doomsday messengers. Yet sometimes we have to look at the bad news to try to identify the good. History can teach us much, but the interpretation is up to us.

Winston Churchill was not only a great orator, but also a great writer. His History of the English-Speaking Peoples has kept me occupied for many hours. As I followed South African President Ramaphosa trying to deliver his State of the Nation address, I remembered Churchill's description of Brittania as the long night descended on the Roman Empire. 

Central heating was more common in Roman times than in Britain in the 1930s. Peace was kept by a few legions, trade flourished, and rigid fair laws regulated society. Lack of agricultural innovation, economic stagnation, and five centuries of peace was followed by barbarian incursions. Rome descended into corruption and anarchy. Officials voted salary increases for themselves, every law became subject to money, every man had a price. Wealthy citizens buried their treasures. Walls were built; international links were severed. And the dark ages descended. 

The hoard of Roman silver from Hoxne. Photograph Mike Peel (CC by 4.0)

Doomsayers in South Africa see parallels. Our electricity utility, ESKOM, once the cheapest power producer in the world, is now struggling under massive debts, asking for yet another tariff increase and government bailouts to maintain its monopoly position. Other state-owned enterprises, and there are many, clamour for treasury to increase their share of the cake. And the government seems to oblige, reluctant to lose the power of political patronage and handy pools of cash from which party faithful can finance lavish lifestyles. ESKOM has to shed some 13,000 jobs to become solvent, yet the president vowed that there would be no job losses, that no routes would be cut to save the ailing airline. 

But SONA, was also made a spectacle by the Economic Freedom Fighters, who raised endless Points of Order, descended to insults and disrupted Parliament, mocking the primary institution of South African democracy. The Speaker managed to retain control, and thereby perhaps injected a ray of light into an otherwise gloomy picture. Elsewhere, judges were bickering in public about office politics, and the Deputy Chief Justice over an endless litany of corruption in numerous state institutions. In the meantime the economy is stagnant, unemployment is growing, and emigrants are taking their skills and knowledge overseas. Some tax experts now propose an exit tax to raise cash for the fiscus. 

Churchill would have been fascinated by the Brexit phenomenon, and the repetition of the post-Roman isolationism seen in Britain today. The British Prime Minister's "war on the law" seems to echo recent statements by President Trump. 

Yet all is not gloom. The South African Speaker's handling of the disruptions in Parliament is a ray of light. Voices within the ruling party, and in the media against the political capture of the South African economy, add hope. A renewed political impetus, a new generation, young voices both in South Africa brings the dawn, not the long night.

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on November 30, 2019 12:36

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