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Wake up, South Africa: Winter is coming

In the latest season of the popular TV series Game of Thrones, a major character has just died. Jon Snow was trying to unite two tribes that were traditional enemies to fight against another, larger enemy – a story as old as the hills. His gambit didn’t pay off: old grudges between the tribes ran too deep, and Snow’s men, disgusted by his rapprochement, iced him.

What’s that got to do with Johannesburg’s northern suburbs? Well, alliances are being formed there too. The leafy suburb I live in now has cameras on almost every corner, pointing in every compass direction, on poles that sometimes bear panic buttons. The streets are combed 24/7 by armed security men in monster bakkies.

Neighbours who never greeted one another for years are starting to cosy up and hold regular meetings. I’m a member of a WhatsApp group that chats so much I have been forced to cut back. A recent chat: “Did you hear those four shots last night? The homeowner fired off a few rounds at an intruder at 3am. The culprit ran, and was apprehended by a security company. One less criminal on our streets!”. General congratulations were offered and at least I knew what had woken me and left me sleepless before my deadline.

We generally only unite when there is a perceived outer threat that somehow binds “us” together, because we cannot fight and win alone against some opponents.

People generally have zero interest in bandying together and getting involved in disputes, let alone ghastly, deadly wars. They would far rather spend their weekends around fires where they can braai, talk shit, watch rugby, drink and possibly fornicate than charge out of trenches into oncoming machinegun fire.

Our boundaries of care – those we perceive as “us”, not “them” – usually extend to our families, a few friends and our pets. We nurture, support and protect these chosen few, sometimes with our lives.

If our neighbourhood is under threat, we might extend our boundaries to our neighbours; if our country appears under threat we may take up arms for a cause (or be conscripted, or run for the hills).

Thankfully, for many of us, “wars” take place on sport fields these days and the only drawback, especially if you are a South African cricket fan, is that your home team sometimes loses in world tournaments. Even that isn’t that terrible any more: those of us with credit cards can Uber home both drunk and legally.

The planet slides into “ecological debt” earlier every year, fish stocks are dying out, fresh water is becoming scarce and global warming is causing mass displacement of third world folk.

One reason for this, logic suggests, is population growth. A hundred years ago, seven million people lived below the Zambezi river. This population, established over thousands of years, is now replicated in a decade: seven million new South Africans drew their first breath between 2001 and 2011.

The demographics of our boundaries are changing. City states may soon replace the concept of countries. In 2030, sport fanatics may be rooting for Jo’burg in matches against New York.

Wealth is becoming concentrated in cities and the countryside is becoming a barren, jobless wasteland, unless you have extensive capital for off-the-grid technology. Two-thirds of South Africans live in cities and that rate keeps increasing.

Johannesburg grew from a population of 1.2-million 50 years ago to 4.5-million people, with about eight-million now living in its greater metropolitan area. Egoli’s perpetual promise of jobs means that no matter how fast housing is put up, it can’t accommodate those pouring in.

Sadly, we haven’t learned to get along with each other better or share our shrinking resources more evenly. Income in South Africa has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 10%, who account for more than half of total wealth. Now there just happen to be more black people in this elite, largely the employees of a massively bloated civil service.

Thankfully, there are large numbers of nongovernmental organisations doing immense amounts of good – educating and feeding and training those who received a terrible start at home and/or at school. Our renewables sector is … well … electric, our game parks are probably the best in Africa, and our fishing companies are committed to sustainable fishing. The HIV situation has improved markedly. Our kids are not hung up on race issues. There are corporate social initiatives around every corner. The well heeled here pay more taxes than in many other countries.

Every second weekend I can’t walk my dogs at Emmarentia Dam because there is an event for the benefit of people with cancer or a disability. We all want to help, we all like to help. Even if we still vote in fools, we are starting to shop more carefully. It’s becoming harder for leaders and companies to pull the wool over our eyes – Volkswagen lost a lot of money because they were caught lying and it affected the entire German economy.

But is this enough? The Economic Freedom Fighters don’t think so, and they may have a point. We can’t just share convenient little bits of our time and concern and money on what we identify with closely. We can’t isolate ourselves and we shouldn’t be drawing together only because of fear; we should be closing ranks solidly against things such as the destruction of our environment and the wastage of public funds, because, as that bastard Snow was fond of saying, “winter is coming”.

If we don’t wake up faster, there might be nothing left for the very people we care the most about: our children and our families.

Not too long ago, we had our own version of Snow, who managed to somehow unite different groups that were flying at each other’s throats. Nelson Mandela wasn’t assassinated by his own men – or luckily, by the fanatical right – but he must have trodden a thin line in trying to please so many parties. For his pains, he lived to a ripe old age, though he must have spun in his grave a few times before he was finally allowed to lie in it.

Derek Davey is a poet, musician, writer, subeditor and juggler who loves his torn country deeply

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Derek Davey
Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches.

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