General pessimism about a society’s prospects is quite widespread across the globe, particularly amongst democracies; people tend to focus on the negative even in the most prosperous countries. In Mzansi (Colloquial for South Africa), there is no shortage of posts and memes filled with clichés and platitudes about how the country is failing at everything all of the time. And while it is true that South Africa’s many crises cannot and should not be ignored, I often find much public discourse to be characteristic of a festival of negativity. In other words, South Africans are interpreting the challenges we face as signs of total collapse or hopelessness. This observation transcends social media, which is a notorious repository for such ‘Mzansi pessimism’. It is also noticeable in more traditional forms of media such as TV, radio, and newspapers, as well as personal conversations many of us have had. The dangers of Mzansi Pessimism may seem abstract but I believe they are real, particularly in the longer term. Pessimism negates opportunities for learning as it takes a narrow view that ignores the functioning aspects of our society and erodes our ability to identify glitches in our systems since everything is assumed to be incorrect. Mzansi pessimism also encourages panic as people see developments that are in no way distinct to South Africa as being indicative of imminent catastrophe.
When thinking of Mzansi Pessimism one recent example comes to my mind. The now often repeated ‘missing R500 billion’ stimulus package. On 21 April 2020, President Ramaphosa announced that the government would be instituting a R500 billion stimulus package to provide social protection, support for small businesses and municipalities as well as health and frontline services. The stimulus package faced almost immediate challenges with potential beneficiaries complaining of not receiving assistance months after the stimulus was announced. Furthermore, the office of the Auditor General of South Africa (AGSA), who had been tracking the spending of the package found serious procedural flaws in how funds were being managed. Later, the National Prosecuting Authority announced that it was investigating fraud and corruption linked to some officials tasked with disbursing the funds.
Amid the justifiable outrage, word spread that the entire R500 billion stimulus package had been stolen by corrupt politicians or that the total amount had simply vanished. In keeping with how misinformation spreads in the age of social media, this unsubstantiated claim became widely accepted as fact in a very short space of time. In reality, nobody with credible knowledge about the stimulus package ever claimed that the entire amount had been stolen or magically disappeared. What the AGSA had said in their report was that they were auditing projects amounting to R135,92 billion of the stimulus that were deemed to be high-risk transactions. This does not mean that the entire amount was somehow linked to corrupt activities. Meanwhile, South Africa’s law enforcement institutions continue to investigate and prosecute corruption related to the stimulus package which could uncover stolen and wasted amounts to the tune of a couple of billions! This is an ungodly amount of money to land up in the hands of the corrupt. However, it by no means indicates that the entire 500 Billion was stolen. Furthermore, many credible economists have gone to great lengths to explain that much of the stimulus package couldn’t have been stolen because it wasn’t tangible money to begin with. R270 billion of the stimulus is tax relief and credit guarantees for bank loans for businesses in distress. Despite overwhelming evidence dispelling the notion that government officials walked off with R500 billion, the narrative seems to be resilient. To some extent, many want to believe that it happened that way as it is befitting of the already poor expectations we have of government. Many of us are so accustomed to hearing about the most scandalous missteps of the ANC government that we stubbornly refuse to alter our views when it’s proven that certain accusations are fabricated or exaggerated. We are comfortable with our pessimism.
I feel it is important to strengthen the voices of those who wish to be measured in their responses to Mzansi’s challenges, whilst acknowledging the successes. We should do this not because we are idealists, not even because we are optimists, but because this is the reality of Mzansi; a society trying to emerge from its transition phase. A transition characterised by successes and failures taking place almost simultaneously to the point that they are difficult to tell apart.
Written by Mongi Henda for 1001 South African Stories
Published: 29 August 2021