Self-help can really help, as long as we don’t wait too long


Self-help can really help, as long as we don’t wait too long

South Africans have reached the stage where the best hope for a meaningful life rests in their own hands, writes DOUW KRÜGER.


CONVERSATIONS about self-help have become more common in the last year or two as the needle on the Ramaphoria meter has gravitated downwards. But it's not a simple topic on which everyone readily agrees.

I have spoken before about some commentators' almost mechanistic back-and-forth movement between sharp criticism on one hand and  optimism on the other. It's probably understandable that people don't want to constantly paint pictures of despair, but a leaking inner tube is not a lifeline. Hope has meaning only if it is backed by a realistic strategy or a reasonable possibility.

We should, for instance, have been more sceptical about André de Ruyter's chances of success when he was appointed as the CEO of Eskom. Not about his management abilities, but about the impossible task at hand. At the time, I wondered if he wasn't too naive, and I wasn't exactly surprised by the eventual outcome. After all, the writing had been on the wall. 

South Africans have reached the stage where the best hope for a meaningful life depends on self-help by citizens. Self-help that operates through decent planning.

The ANC's betrayal of its own voters is not going to be reversed in the normal course of affairs. President Cyril Ramaphosa's lack of room to manoeuvre and the self-interest that undermines coalitions sabotage any thought of drastic productive action. I have little confidence that post-2024 coalitions will be able to turn the ship around.

At the top of the list of problems, I place the widespread corruption and mismanagement that are gently subverted instead of fought, crime syndicates that threaten and kill, and violent crime.

What about tax?

What is self-help in South Africa about? Should we take over the state's functions? Is it possible? What about the taxes we pay? Is the state going to do even less now? My prediction is that we will have to do much more ourselves than we currently presume. Self-help covers a wide spectrum — working together, crying together and dancing together.

My thoughts constantly return to a conversation a few years ago with the owner of a small “Landhotel" in Buchholz, in the countryside of the former East Germany. The people didn't really suffer from hunger during communist rule. That happened during and just after the war. They had clothes, and there was public transportation and housing. There was free education, post-school training and basic medical care. Despite a seesaw relationship between church and state, the church continued to exist and played a productive role in community life and social care.

But it was a genuine lower middle-class existence at best. There was no money for luxuries and, in fact, few luxuries were available. Shop shelves were often empty and there were long queues. Especially in the cities. And people did not have the freedom to protest or to openly launch initiatives. Life and the future were grim. But there was a sense of commonality, an attitude of supporting each other — at least among those who could trust each other, and perhaps more so in the countryside than in the cities.

The woman in Buchholz and her family were the only ones in their immediate area who had a decent radio. Their home was the place where friends gathered in the evenings to listen to music and other programmes. It was probably a shortwave radio with which they could also receive Western broadcasts. And they made plans together to improve their quality of life.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, things changed and people began to focus more on their own comfort. And now the hotel owner is nostalgic about that togetherness and the mutual support that has faded.

Emotional energy

Of course, this was no fairy tale. The commonality could not nearly erase the shortcomings of a dictatorial socialist order. But it raised people's spirits and gave them the emotional energy to carry on with their lives until the light started to shine through again. That sounds like a good place for self-help to start.

At this stage in South Africa we think more about our physical environment when we talk about self-help. And this is critically important. We need a roof over our heads, heat in the winter, light at night, food, clean water and medical services. Our roads must be negotiable, we must be able to walk and drive freely and criminal syndicates must be eradicated. Yes, the criminal syndicates which are now even committing murder in the good Western Cape to get their message across, and which force public construction projects to a standstill in the process.

Those who react with irritation to what they see as prophecies of doom must remember one thing: it is not really about where South Africa is now. It is about the direction in which things are moving and resisting the various driving forces behind it. Do we only want to try to reverse things once we have nothing left? When the lurking National Health Insurance has made our young doctors and nurses leave in droves? When the engineers are gone? When hyperinflation has turned pensioners into paupers, like in Zimbabwe? We are not Zimbabwe yet. The Treasury still keeps its eye on the ball — but only as long as the cadres will allow it.

We have to look for and create the green sprigs in self-help actions. The first self-help action I was directly involved in was security patrols in our own area. In 2006, in our small neighbourhood in Durbanville, there were some 60 burglaries or attempted burglaries in two months. We met the police in the school hall and set up a neighbourhood watch. Men voluntarily patrolled the area at night — each participant got one turn per month. The neighbourhoods around us followed suit, and within a month the problem was practically solved. We are still doing it. When a sophisticated gang recently started breaking in through houses' roofs when the owners were not at home, the neighbourhood watch patrols played a major role in catching them.

Unite divided communities

The activities of South Africa Day, led by Barend le Grange, are well known. They not only encouraged communities to repair and maintain infrastructure but in the process brought divided communities back together. And other towns began to follow suit.

The activities of The ShackBuilder's Quinton Adams have been getting a lot of attention lately. He's an entrepreneur whose organisation improves the homes of people living in impossible conditions and gives them new courage and pride. The Backyard Varsity was developed simultaneously, training unemployed young people in the thorough construction of good-looking corrugated iron homes. People are not only taught how to do the physical task, but also trained in process management.

The ShackBuilder's activities have even attracted overseas attention. Two weeks ago, I took a Dutch nephew who is interested in such activities to talk to Adams, and he accompanied the team to see what they were doing in the townships. He will promote their activities in the Netherlands. I look forward to the day when the Backyard Varsity develops into a real campus.

Humans are creative beings and they inspire each other. When a community starts talking, brilliant ideas quickly emerge. Start with the first step. It is about your own fate and the fate of others. Help other people, other communities, to help themselves. Let's do what we should have started doing in 1994.

The bit of cold water on this sermon is that some issues are more difficult to tackle with ordinary self-help actions than others, such as serious corruption and intimidation. A mafia culture with deep roots that has established itself over various terrains is like a cancer that has spread. This requires serious commitment and intervention on the part of the state. Italy is a good example: despite various initiatives on the part of the Carabinieri, the crime syndicates are still going strong.

The ability of civil actions to combat intimidation and corruption is much more limited than the impact they can have in areas such as maintaining infrastructure or preventing burglaries. However, there is definitely room for that. As I understand from a specific construction firm, prevention is much more effective than cure. Don't let it take hold in your area.

I want to believe that a community which builds momentum with self-help actions will also develop a stronger urge to hold politicians and officials accountable and vote them out of office where necessary. And that the politicians and officials will get that message. It is a step-by-step process. But if a critical mass develops, the message will hit home. Provided we don't wait too long.

♦ VWB ♦

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