Until Covid struck, I was the co-owner of a small Indian restaurant in Cape Town. Not the likeliest calling for a novelist, but it was something I got involved in to help a friend. The business had been struggling for a while and we had no cash reserves when the first lockdown hit, so I was suddenly liable for the bills – including the salaries of our five staff – and I paid, and paid, and paid. Many other restaurants cut their workers loose, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Our employees were just getting by and had mouths to feed. What were they supposed to do? Besides, our government had assured us that salaries would be covered by relief money, to be disbursed by the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) for this very purpose. We had only to apply.
I am still waiting. There were scanty, arbitrary amounts of relief each month, different each time, with no explanation. Calling the UIF was useless; it was almost impossible to reach anybody, and if you did, they invariably couldn’t help. I made up the difference for four months, but couldn’t keep doing that forever. When we finally closed in July last year, the staff’s severance pay came out of my account, too.
Later it emerged that large sums had been stolen from the UIF – some by unscrupulous employers, but much of it was, reportedly, diverted to false beneficiaries, many connected to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. That pattern has been repeated, it seems, with almost every government department. The scandals are numerous: 300m rand (£14.4m) went “missing” from a fund meant to assist artists; personal protective equipment (PPE) was purchased at inflated prices from companies that were hastily set up by unqualified people with, allegedly, government connections. The rot goes all the way to the top; earlier this month, South Africa’s health minister Zweli Mkhize quit after facing investigation over allegedly arranging contracts that benefited members of his family, who are accused of using part of the relief money to start a nail salon.
Perhaps the most depressing thing is that none of this is a surprise. South Africans have come to expect a mix of incompetence and corruption from public functionaries. What has emerged from the Zondo Commission – a public inquiry launched by the South African government in 2018 to investigate allegations of corruption – over the past three years is simply a variation on the same theme: the siphoning off of funds by officials and their friends or family, frequently on a staggering scale. Indifference to the fate of the poor is just part of the deal.
Before Covid, there were some signs that the ANC might be trying to reform itself. Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, has strengthened the National Prosecuting Authority, which was hollowed out under his predecessor Jacob Zuma. The law has now caught up with Zuma, who has been accused of enriching himself and his allies to the tune of billions. The resulting schism in the ANC, with two factions vying for control, is cause for concern to all South Africans – but also reason for a tentative hope that things might finally start to shift. At the start of the first lockdown, there was even a sense of long-lost community spirit, a hangover from the first democratic election in 1994, when it felt for a brief moment as if we might clean up this mess together.
The process of acquiring vaccine supplies, however, has been marred by poor decisions and last-minute reversals. So when I finally became eligible for my first shot in July, it came as a pleasant surprise that everything went smoothly. Wham, bam, all done in an hour. After I got home, there was news that Zuma had finally reported to jail to serve his 15-month sentence for contempt of court, after refusing to appear in front of the Zondo Commission. For one brief, unreal moment, it felt as if a new, brighter future had arrived.
The illusion didn’t last. Two days later, on 9 July, rioting began around Durban – the heartland of Zuma’s support – and spread all the way to Gauteng in the north. Highways were blocked, trucks burned, shopping malls plundered. Tensions between the Indian and black communities were inflamed, which led to attacks on homes and individuals. Vigilante groups committed reprisals of their own. Once again, government assistance was notable by its absence. By the time the unrest had been quelled, more than 330 people had lost their lives, and 50 billion rand had been wiped off the economy.
In the days that followed, a sort of exhausted depression settled over the country. In dining rooms, online forums and on television, it was the main topic of conversation, yet the discourse was subdued, almost stunned. Similar to many narratives in this country, there are two competing explanations for what happened. The first is that this was a planned insurrection, with elements of the security services on board, aimed at overthrowing Ramaphosa. For the first time, the ANC has been taking steps to hold members accountable for corruption, and the pushback has been fierce. The second explanation is that the rioting was spontaneous, an expression of desperation on the part of hungry people – and that obviously has its own truth, too.
The unhappy fact is that both narratives might be right. An attempt to stir trouble – perhaps as a warning to Ramaphosa – took on its own frantic life. When I expressed this thought to a friend, she became defensive and insisted that only a few people took part in the unrest. It seemed a point of honour to her that most South Africans weren’t prepared to break the law. She isn’t wrong – but honour seems a thin consolation, when so much damage was caused by so few.
Zuma’s prison sentence is only the start of South Africa’s troubles. His corruption trial, which was due to start in July, has been delayed again on medical grounds. Zuma may be ill, but to many it sounds like a weary tactic to stall his day of reckoning. Eventually, Zuma will have to face the court, and if his supporters were prepared to burn the country down over a relatively minor sentence, how far will they go if he is convicted of far more serious charges? There are many people, some in high office, who have thrived under a corrupt state. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by fighting against any attempt to clean up the system. It is to their strategic advantage that the country is in a weak and distracted state.
South Africa is at a tipping point. In a best-case scenario, Ramaphosa will manage to force through his reforms, and the government will begin to look after its most vulnerable. The worst-case scenario is much more depressing. As far back as I can recall, this country has been on the edge of a precipice and has somehow always managed to veer away. But I can’t remember a moment when I had less hope for the future. It is dismal to feel that; more dismal yet to admit it.
The collateral damage of corruption is always the lives of ordinary, poor people. What was most disturbing about the looting was how inevitable it seemed; or rather, how of a piece with the atmosphere of wider frustration. Things have been stretched too far, for too long. There is a shimmer of genuine madness in the air. If a middle-class man like me can sense it, how much closer to the surface must it be for the poor, such as the people who used to work in my restaurant?
When their severance pay ran out, my staff were covered for a few months by UIF benefits; since then, they have scrambled to get by. One found work in a factory, another on a food stall. A third fell seriously ill with what sounded like Covid and was hospitalised for a time; I am still helping him. A government grant of 350 rand a month is a tiny support, but too paltry to survive on. South Africa had an unemployment crisis even before the pandemic started, which means that jobs are almost impossible to find.
Ironically, writing is one of the more secure professions, so I am in a better position than most. I live in an affluent part of Cape Town and the serene view from my window gives no hint of the human trouble all around. But even in this area, the number of homeless people has increased, many of them sleeping rough through a wet, bitter winter. The doorbell rings several times a day, people wanting food, clothing or money, and on the short walk to my local supermarket I pass thickets of outstretched hands. Like many others I do what I can, but there is no end to the need.
The restaurant has become a clothing store, but every time I have passed I haven’t seen any customers. The new owner tells me she can survive because most of her business is online. Many shops, however, stand empty, and are as noticeable as missing teeth. There is a glut of houses on the market, too, and prices are low. Many people can’t keep up their repayments, but some are leaving the country, and taking their money with them. I’m not among them – yet – but for the first time the idea is in my mind, and it’s not going away.
Damon Galgut is a novelist and playwright. His most recent novel, “The Promise”, is longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat