IN SEPTEMBER 2009, shortly after President Jacob Zuma had taken office, it was revealed that the Department of Higher Education and Training had spent R1.1m on a new luxury BMW for minister Blade Nzimande. He was one of many ministers to overindulge in the public purse in this way. The scandal was dubbed "Cargate" and South Africans were outraged. So outraged, in fact, that the story made the New York Times. Those were the days — when million-rand indiscretions set the public mind on fire and six zeros meant something.
The Nkandla scandal was beginning to unfold in a serious way at the time. And so we were introduced to the hundred-million-rand scandal — R250m, to be precise, on a house.
That wild fire has been burning for some time. But still the numbers grew.
Then R500m was irregularly spent on a lease for new South African Police Service headquarters the story went — almost a billion rand over the next 10 years. Another zero quietly introduced itself to the national debate.
Later, billion-rand problems rose in prominence. "Scandal of R1.2bn missing SA satellite", wrote The Times earlier this year. Gauteng was suffering a R20bn debt after upgrading its highways and so "e-tolls" became the latest euphemism for mismanagement.
Sanral said it needed R150bn to cover the maintenance of our roads. The fire was now so hot it spewed and spat like molten lava. The public mind, once feverish, was now fairly hardwired for permanent electroshock therapy.
Recently another zero has appeared on the scene. Zuma appears to have taken it upon himself to all but secure a trillion-rand nuclear energy deal with Russia. The deal is shrouded in secrecy; the utter lack of transparency makes no sense. It contradicts existing policy and the executive seems to believe Parliament need not be consulted.
How does one digest a number like that — on top of all the other zeros? You cannot. It is just a number. The deal is so big you just glaze over. Registering that it’s bad news is about as much outrage as the public mind can now muster. We are fresh out of indignation.
And it gets worse. There are problems so big now that they don’t even need numbers.
In a statement that passed without so much as a murmur, Democratic Alliance shadow minister for defence David Maynier recently pointed out the National Defence Review was gathering dust in a parliamentary corner somewhere.
The review, according to Maynier, says: "(The defence force) is in a critical state of decline, characterised by a force imbalance between capabilities; block obsolescence and unaffordability of many of its main operating systems; a disproportionate tooth-to-tail ratio (the amount of military personnel it takes to supply and support each combat soldier); the inability to meet current standing defence commitments; and the lack of critical mobility."
It continues that "even with an immediate intervention, it could take at least five years to arrest the decline and another five years to develop a limited and sustainable defence capability".
Think about that for a moment.
A review of our defence force capability, carried out by the government itself (which is hardly partial to honesty or forthright appraisal), says that only with an immediate intervention might it be possible just to stop the decline in five years. Should that happen, it might be possible for SA to demonstrate a limited defence capability in 10 years time.
This is the kind of assessment that does not boggle the mind; it simply renders you emotionally inert. It is too stupefying to properly contemplate. You just stare at it. What does it even mean? At the very least, you can glean from it the obvious: the defence force is a pretence, and chances are we wont have one in 10 years either.
Quite where you go after a trillion is difficult to say. Perhaps we should start inventing numbers: a gazillion? Mathematics can help. How about a googolplex corruption scandal? (A googolplex boasts a hundred zeros.) Watch this space. You get the sense it is coming to a newspaper headline near you soon.
In her excellent book, Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum describes gigantism in the Soviet Union under the iron fist of Joseph Stalin. The scale of infrastructure projects and great human cost was astounding. The modern world has no equivalent.
SA seems to have developed its own brand of gigantism — corruption and maladministration. Things are falling apart on such a big scale it is no longer possible to maintain a clear picture of the problem in your head.
Foremost is the infrastructure backlog, for our roads, railways, electricity and water supplies all fall into the hundreds of billions of rand. Many are so big the disparity between simply managing the status quo ( that is, keeping the lights on) and planning a year ahead is so monumental they need emergency capital budgets that defy belief. And, as Peter Bruce pointed out a few weeks ago — there is no money. The Treasury coffers are dry.
What perspective one can muster shows that we are merely treading water; that is, where there is water to tread. There is no chance of us expanding our infrastructure, only a desperate attempt to stop it going into meltdown. SA is like a liquid metal pot that the potter shapes and moulds. The government is trying to keep it vaguely in shape but the wheel keeps spinning faster and the metal gets hotter. It is now badly out of shape as the executive administers ever more spasmodic slaps while trying to avoid getting burnt.
Were it instantaneously set, it would be grotesque and leak everywhere.
We have tried to adjust our language to capture appropriately our shock and horror. But all those zeros render even the word "crisis" — now omnipresent in national discourse — meaningless.
If everything is in crisis — and you would be hard pressed to find something that is not — then what is actually a crisis, really? It’s life; that’s what it is. It is the nature of the South African experience. We live in permanent crisis. It’s just the way of things. Even our radio traffic reports, when they are done reporting on potholes and broken traffic lights, now include roads closed due to service delivery protests.
As for outrage? Yes, there is a lot of that. But because it peaked years ago, it has nowhere to go. We redline the whole time. Somewhere between Nzimande’s car and Russia, we lost the ability to respond appropriately to the real scale of any given crisis. There were too many of them too quickly. Our media reflects this gigantic anger. To get a headline these days an entire province needs to be without water, Parliament must be imploding or, as the Department of Public Works revealed last week, R35bn must go missing. Forget Blade’s car. The biggest mistake he made was buying it five years ago. Had he bought it today it would be no more than a Hogarth.
Where to from here?
There is despair, of course, which is the next stepping stone on the path to hopelessness. But perhaps before we arrive at that point we might breach the South African pain threshold.
The problem with all these numbers is that for too many that is all they are. That is why this recent water crisis is significant. As with the electricity blackouts, it is when numbers turn into reality that you really feel the bite. There is a reason young people become interested in politics the minute they get a job: it is when they first pay tax.
So here’s the real thing to try to stomach: SA has not experienced a real crisis at all. We know nothing of crisis. But never mind, it’s coming. Those great infrastructure problems, lovingly captured by the executive on Excel spreadsheets, mean that at some point too many taps are going to run dry. Virtual problems are going to become real ones.
And, when that happens, you will be amazed at just how much real outrage we have in reserve.