Depressed? Blame it on governance


Poor governance is affecting our happiness.

Psychological trauma can be inflicted by a single significant event. However, trauma is also inflicted when there is ongoing stress that does not seem to have a foreseeable end. Re-traumatisation occurs with every event that shares similarities with the previous one. Load-shedding of electricity is one example. Recent debates on load-shedding have centred on the economic costs, including the number of jobs that might be lost, as a result of the inefficiencies of the state in managing Eskom.

Although these debates are very important, my thoughts have turned to the emotional and social toll that mismanagement by the state is taking on South Africans. Despite South Africans having suffered intermittent load-shedding since 2008 — more than 11 years — we have not really talked much about the effects of this example of poor governance on our mental wellbeing. Another example is the crime in our country, both violent and white-collar crimes.

(Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

South Africans seem to have little hope that government will get these and other destructive influences under control, and further emotional trauma is inflicted on our society every time a poor governance decision is made.

The uncertainty associated with not knowing whether your business or household will have electricity or water induces anxiety and frustration, and further complicates tasks that are already inherently stressful, such as meeting work deadlines, serving customers or feeding small children.

Ongoing events such as not having enough medical staff at government hospitals because of misappropriated budgets (not a lack of available skills), having to use pit latrines, joblessness, continual power breaks or no electricity and running water at all, driving on death-trap roads such as the infamous Mabopane R80 route, and the reality of the country’s fiscus being plunged into unsustainable debt amount to prolonged traumatic events.

The fear created by this trauma may be exactly the conditions under which our leaders and those they co-opt are thriving — by dividing and ruling South African society through impractical and empty promises, people’s despair, and the resultant societal — often violent — hostilities.

South Africans show decreasing levels of happiness, according to the 2018 Happiness Index of the Bureau for Market Research at Unisa.

Unhappiness is created by means of, for example, individuals’ financial positions and the economic and political climate of the country, and these two issues are directly related to poor governance of our country. Since the inception of the World Happiness Index in 2011, South Africans are shown to have gradually become less happy, with men reporting lower levels of happiness than women, overall.

Men’s reported lower levels of happiness lead to frustration and aggression, which contribute to the high levels of domestic and intimate partner violence in South Africa. The 2016 Global Peace Index indicated that “the cost of violence to the South African economy is at 19% of the country’s gross domestic product” — which, according to the peace index, is “the 16th-highest rate in the world”.

When human beings feel that there is no way out and they have no control over important aspects of their lives, violence becomes an option, and fear controls their actions.

In 2017-2018, Statistics South Africa reported, approximately “32% of South Africans felt safe walking alone in their neighbourhoods at night”, and “the percentage of households who feel safe walking in their neighbourhoods during the day declined from 84.8% in 2016-17 to 79.1%”.

In addition, “satisfaction with the police declined in every province except the Western Cape and Free State, while satisfaction with the courts declined in every province except the North West”.

In 2016-2017, Stats SA reported that “up to 32% of people reported being unable to carry out basic tasks for fear of crime”.

Trust in our fellow citizens and those who should be protecting us is fast eroding.

Unisa’s Bureau for Market Research reported that depression among South African youths (aged 14 to 35 years) was at 0.2% of the national youth population in 2015. In the youth grouping, the age group 30 to 35 showed higher levels of depression than those aged 14 to 19.

South African adults who are currently maturing in their careers are therefore afflicted by depression, more so than younger South Africans. It would seem that reality has set in for this age group. In support of this, the accuracy of our perceptions regarding key societal factors has improved since 2017, according to the Perils of Perception Survey of 2018, which finds that South Africans are becoming better versed in, especially, crime indicators. This leads to further stress and feelings of despondency regarding the country’s future.

But how did we allow poor governance to occur to the extent that many of us feel emotionally distraught about the future of our country? Perhaps we felt that our duty was done after we had voted. This is, after all, how developed democracies seem to work. You cast your vote and then trust the elected politicians to take care of the rest. We handed over our power to our leaders, forgetting that people often seek to maximise their own gains and that self-interest is a powerful motivator.

More specifically, our blind spot was that we did not consider that people in power would find it difficult to feed their self-interests as well as realise society’s goals, a situation complicated by societal norms and social structures shifting or being overturned. South Africans underestimated the need for gradual, differential adaptation, which suggests we “may adapt in a variety of ways that do not require [us] to acquiesce to pressures to assimilate” regarding our collective norms for societal change.

Differing ideologies, exclusion from existing networks of influence, divided groupings and deeply entrenched structural impediments at the dawn of democracy led to our present situation of anomie, a state of normlessness and disconnectedness within society.

Criminologist Robert Agnew would agree that we have allowed conditions of continual strain, such as economic pressure and people feeling excluded and forgotten, to fester. In the relatively short life of our democracy, we have shown erratic social support for each other, evident in, for example, the support of men for issues regarded as “‘women’s problems”.

There seems to be a lack of appreciation for the fact that both good and bad have a ripple effect on a society as a whole and, ultimately, the entire country. Sociologist Mark Colvin warns that erratic social support breaks down trust and leads to people being vulnerable to social support from illegitimate sources, potentially leading to coercion into crime. Under the present conditions of normlessness and disconnection, our leaders may have perceived that crime is an easy way to maximise their own benefits.

The good news is that Miami-based criminologist Olena Antonaccio and colleagues indicate that anomie can be countered by legitimate social support, risk of punishment, self-control, or morality — both personal and emanating from the example set by our leaders.

The poor governance by the state and its proxies has placed us all in a dire predicament, and the structural damage and emotional turmoil that has been left in its wake will remain with us long after the last word of inspirational speeches by eager politicians has been uttered.

It is clear that a new and urgent course of action is required, one founded on the preamble to our Constitution: “We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to:

  • Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
  • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
  • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
  • Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”

Only when this blueprint for governance is honoured and executed will South Africa and its people be healed.

Professor Anita Bosch holds the University of Stellenbosch Business School Research Chair: Women at Work and teaches in both leadership and organisational behaviour tracks at the university

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Anita Bosch
Anita Bosch
Professor Anita Bosch holds the University of Stellenbosch Business School Research Chair: Women at Work and teaches in both leadership and organisational behaviour tracks at the university.

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