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

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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.

Related stories

The Portfolio: Levy Pooe

Artist Levy Pooe conceptualises his work as ‘a social diary of being black in the city’

Extract from ‘Mermaid Fillet: A Noir Crime Novel’ by Mia Arderne

This extract from Mia Arderne’s debut work of fiction, ‘Mermaid Fillet: A Noir Crime Novel’ introduces readers to Uncle ‘M16-in-your-bek’

Merchants of despair

When imprisonment becomes a business, the profit motive rears its head at the expense of the good of the prisoners. Three recent books deal with the murky workings of the prison-industrial complex in South Africa

Vigorous policing of petty crime during the pandemic suggests a Pyrrhic defeat

The ideological aims of the criminal justice system in dysfunctional societies, like South Africa, is to indirectly legitimise the inequitable economic system

The Portfolio: Global Africa Lab

A project by Global Africa Lab explores the future of Black neighbourhoods affected by gentrification in New York City

Rise in forced labour expected amid the Covid-19 economic crisis

Criminals prey on desperate people by offering them false promises of a better life. In fact, they are coercing them into lives of exploitation and misery

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday