Jozi Girl

The matriarch of my wife’s large family, has died in Johannesburg .

Zohra Rajah was born 89 years ago in the Garden City Hospital just a short distance from her last home.

Zohra’s lineage bears testament to the cultural melting pot that is typical of many South African families and perhaps counter to what an outsider might imagine. The family tree includes names like Knight, Maas, MacPherson, Scrimpton and Green.

Zohra, born Nora Knight, was brought up by her grandmother, Annie Scrimpton, and around the Alexandra Rajahs for whom some of her extended  family worked. She fell in love as a young woman with the dashing Ismail Rajah. This was complicated because she was neither of Indian heritage nor a Muslim. The Rajah family did not approve and the young couple were cast adrift when they chose love over convention and married.

Zohra had seven children; later twenty grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. We are still counting. This, combined with what must have been a tough upbringing, shaped the feisty woman that she became. She would stand no nonsense, was often very direct and always fiercely protective of her children. She was well known in the community and was sought out for advice. She was known variously as Auntie Ba, Ouma Ba, Ma, Zohra and Nora to friends and family. Her home was open to all.

Life under apartheid was not easy for Zohra and her family. Educational opportunities were limited and there were times when the children had to travel long distances to school or make the move from their rural home to Lenasia Township, south of Johannesburg.

Zohra converted to Islam early in her marriage and fulfilled her obligation to make the Hajj pilgrimage, with Ismail, some years ago. When her own children attended madrassah, they helped her increase her knowledge of the Quran.

Amongst many happy family times, highlights include Sunday picnics at Lone Creek Falls near Sabie in the old Eastern Transvaal and weekend trips to Portuguese Lourenço Marques where the family could enjoy a respite from apartheid.

Although Zohra had little formal education, she was a fount of knowledge. She could name rivers by country across the globe. She enjoyed a crossword or word puzzle. She was a fan of Elvis Presley and the most handsome of the  lead men in Bollywood films. She was as comfortable engaging in a lively discussion with a lawyer or university professor as she was was with the gardener.

After 66 years of marriage, Zohra was widowed and the loss of the love of her life triggered a steady decline in her health. This did not alter the fact that wherever she was became the family hub. She was almost never alone.  Her instagram generation grandchildren were happy to sit for hours and be entertained by her stories or receive life advice. Friends from the old days would frequently visit on Sundays.

A small piece of the best of the old South Africa just left for a better place; resilient, self-sufficient, loving, generous and welcoming. She will be missed.

Written with the help of my wife, Zohra’s 4th daughter, Nafisa.

Transformation Fatigue

As I write, Jacob Zuma, the discredited President of South Africa, is considering his position having been recalled, finally, by his party. South Africa is in the third decade of one of the most ambitious change programmes the world has seen. Understandably, transformation fatigue has set in. People are disappointed by the lack of progress towards a more equal society and angry that the party of liberation, the African National Congress, has incubated corrupt leadership of which Zuma is the prime example. South African’s were not fooled by Zuma’s desperate, drowning gestures, for example offering free university education without a plan or funds.

Strong leadership with absolute integrity is critical to the success of the programme. Such leadership sets realistic expectations, sticks to the plan, defines tangible milestones and communicates relentlessly to celebrate even small successes along the way. A programme led by leaders that have lost the confidence of the people cannot succeed. Communications are ignored or discounted as lies. The vision is forgotten.

The saving grace for South Africa is its constitution.  This has (mostly) protected a free press, an independent judiciary and kept important powers for parliament. Contrast with Putin’s Russia, where the slide into authoritarianism has gone largely unchecked.

By the time you read this, Cyril Ramaphosa may already be the new President. The challenge he will face is enormous but the elements of a turnaround plan are not difficult to identify. He will need to reestablish the vision for South Africa’s weary people and to rally them around a common set of objectives and priorities to drive development over the longer term. He must clean out the mire of corruption (“draining the swamp” is somewhere else) in which his leadership team is floundering.  Only then can the resources be focused on driving change rather than accumulating wealth.

Change is good. Re-energising the people suffering from transformation fatigue is critical.

Talk Talk

I have been in South Africa for the last 3 months. I blogged earlier, quite optimistically, on the slow progress that the country is making towards a more equal and race blind country. Since then I have tried to soak up the important trends and to learn more about what is really happening here.

Two very different data points struck me as relevant:

The first relates to an entrepreneur trading informally in the Eastern Cape. He refused financial help offered by a government agency charged with promoting the cause of micro and small businesses;  arguing that he would then become like a child of the agency and less able, rather than more, to stand on his own feet. This self reliance is a characteristic of people here, evolved from pioneering ancestors of all races and surely a reason to be hopeful.

The second relates to the recently updated corruption perception index. This places South Africa in 64th place of a 176 countries. The country scores slightly above the global average. This is probably better than most South Africans would predict. A real positive is that almost no one thinks this is anywhere near good enough.

There is a vibrant media here that is outspoken in its fight against government waste, corruption and big business collusion. Radio talk shows (Shado Twala on SA FM for example) provide a platform for equally vociferous members of the public. This same vibrancy also perhaps feeds the pessimism of people here.

The progress of South Africa (a member of G20 remember) towards a fairer society is undoubtedly hindered by her small tax base. Extreme income inequality means that less than 10% of the population contribute 99% of the income tax. Unemployment at about 25% and a thriving black economy are major factors and tax payers are unlikely to be encouraged if they think their tax contributions are finding their way into the pockets of corrupt officials.

SA is proud of her constitution and she has worked hard to establish functional government at national, provincial and local level. In doing so, I think the mark has been overshot. The straight forward language of the generation of ANC freedom fighters, many educated in the old eastern bloc, has been replaced by something else.  When interviewed, civil servants and politicians tend to get mired in fashionable phrases and gobbledegook; currently every initiative is labeled as part of the hoped for radical socio-economic transformation. It is not enough to claim to encourage just entrepreneurship. It must be social entrepreneurship. There is a strong sense that there is a lot of multi-sylabic talk and little action.   This seems to me, to point to a need for  government to be stripped down to the essentials in order to deliver more rapid and sustainable change.

So am I more or less optimistic about South Africa after 3 months of privileged existence here? Is this country another Zimbabwe waiting to happen as many here would have you believe? I do not think so. South Africans are protective of their right to dissent. They see through the talk. There is too much that is good here and a healthy set of checks and balances upon which citizens now insist.