Thomas Mann’s The Glass-bead Game, completed immediately after World War II, understandably deals with a future in which war, poverty, social injustice, tyranny and all the other unnatural shocks that flesh is heir to have been swept aside. Instead, the focus of the book is on secular monasteries where the world focusses its attention. Inside the monasteries, old men move glass beads around. This is what is important for those of the people of the world who have any leisure to think. Politics, social development, ambition, greed, honour — all is abandoned (except, of course, for those very old men, who bear the weight of all these things on their shoulders as they toy with their beads).
Fantasy. Never happen. Or has it happened?
At the moment, the Confederation Cup is being played. Many of the world’s least interesting soccer teams are coming to South Africa to play dull games in largely-empty stadia. (Foolishly, some of the photographs of the games are inadequately cropped so that the ranks and files of bare seats serve as an impressive background.) This is not surprising. Nobody cared about the Confederation Cup. Nobody, previously, cared that the Indian Premier League were playing in South Africa (because they were afraid of the Taliban or the Maoists or the Hindu nationalists blowing them up if they played in India). Muddied oafs at the goal in echoing empty structures; Samuel Beckett, thou shouldst be living at this hour. (Beckett might also have appreciated the echoing empty structures across the country where no spectators can sit, because the stadia remain unfinished as a result of the National Union of Mineworkers going on strike for more money, less work or just for the sake of a line in the news. Perhaps these stadia could themselves be considered as Theatres of the Absurd.)
The fact that nobody cares about these games is an obstacle which has been heroically overcome by the media, which has done its best to simulate enthusiasm. However, there is something more; when it comes to soccer, the government has been hopping about like grasshoppers on amphetamines. The Minister of Home Affairs personally ensured that there would be sufficient personnel to oversee the gigantic swarms of soccer fans who were not coming. The Minister of Police devoted immense amount of time to planning the protection of nonexistent tourists and also to making excuses for the failure to protect those few tourists who arrived. Periodically the President and the organised crime boss in charge of making money out of world football hold meetings and agree that everything is wonderful. The Ministry of Justice is proposing to temporarily legalise prostitution during the 2010 World Cup so that people can come to South Africa to fuck our whores instead of just watching soccer. (South Africa, as is well known, is a magnificent place to fuck whores because of human trafficking, child prostitution and a glorious garland of sexually transmitted diseases.)
So it would appear, then, that South Africa’s Beautiful Game is substituting for Mann’s glass-bead game. Now that we have sorted out all our other problems we are expected to focus our attention on people playing with round things. Admittedly they are playing in stadia rather than in monasteries, watched by cheering throngs (in their dreams, anyway). But it is certainly a focus of attention . . .
But wait a moment. What are these problems which we have sorted out? Health care? Safety and security? Foreign policy? Provincial and local government? The economy? Education?
In health care, we have the plan to set up a system of health insurance. It is difficult to call it a plan because it seems not to take account of any realities, such as the way in which huge structures of private medical care are funded by huge medical aid schemes, all linked to global financial institutions. The health insurance system represents a frontal attack on these schemes. It is also, of course, a plan for a grotesque bureaucratic pyramid which would offer immense opportunities for corruption and abuse (like the medical aid schemes themselves). It will waste vast amounts of money on administration, added to the vast amounts wasted on administration of actual health care, and will delay payment. There is nothing good to say about this scheme (while no real details have been released it looks at a distance rather like the bad scheme which Clinton tried to introduce to the United States in the 1990s). On the positive side it is quite certain that it will not be implemented because too many powerful players are opposed to it. It exists, therefore, purely to create the illusion that the government is doing something about the problem.
Meanwhile, in this not unimportant field, we have the enormous problem that too much is being spent on personnel and not enough on infrastructure. This problem is being addressed by spending another percent of the budget on personnel (through the doctors’ salary increase). This action will not stop the flood of medical personnel abroad or to private medical structures, but it does create the illusion that the government is doing something about the problem, and since nobody is mentioning the problem of overspending on personnel, this can be kept under the carpet for the moment.
On the economy, we have the firm promise to create half a million jobs by the end of the year. As one newspaper pointed out, this means 1,369 jobs a day for the next year. In the 60 days since the election, 82,000 jobs should have been created. Instead, a comparable number of jobs have been lost. The pledge is also to create four million jobs by 2014. Iraj Ibadian is not the Creator’s favourite economist, but he is quite correct to point out that it is impossible for anyone to gauge the merits of this promise because nobody has put forward any plan, nor even the skeleton of a plan, for creating any such jobs at all. It appears that what the government is doing as regard to the economy is to make promises which it probably cannot keep, but which it appears to have no intention of keeping. The only other thing which the government has made clear is that it is opposed to the 34% increase in the price of electricity proposed by ESKOM — apart from the neoliberal AIDS-patient-killer Minister for Public Enterprises, Barbara Hogan, who supports this increase. (Since she is a big fan of privatisation, presumably she feels this will make it easier to privatise ESKOM, which will simplify her job.)
And on the other issues? That is interesting; there is, or appears to be, nothing. No health-care plan. No plan for improving policing (other than hangovers from the past). No plan to improve provincial or local government (on the contrary, what is being done, under the cloak of such a plan, seems calculated to make conditions worse, since the activity entails purging anyone suspected of disloyalty to Zuma and ensuring the perpetuation of multiple centres of power in provinces so as to make them more controllable). No plan for education (apart from the disastrous step of splitting it into two pieces). No plan for foreign policy (apart from an apparent pledge to suck up more to the United States).
Above all there is no central vision to guide anyone into developing their own plan. The ANC’s policy statements are vapid pledges to do everything that everyone likes all at once, not prioritising anything, and especially not undertaking to explain how any of these things can or should be done. One thing which one must admit about Zuma’s ANC, they are consistent; none of the leading lights of the party has taken responsibility for anything which might lead to criticism.
Meanwhile, of course, South Africa does have a couple of problems. We have no coherent strategy for dealing with the AIDS epidemic, having wasted a decade on pretending that throwing antiretrovirals in every direction was the answer. We have no coherent strategy for coping with global warming. We have no coherent strategy for replacing the impending shortage of liquid fuels. And, in the short term, we have no coherent strategy for dealing with the economic depression. Oh, and there are little things like bad education, inadequate general health care, weakening transport infrastructure, loosening social cohesion, rising crime rates, unsatisfactory military force — all that sort of thing. Many of these are problems which could have been addressed in the past ten years but were not because of shifting priorities and inadequate planning or central authority. Over the past five years, in any event, in-fighting within the ANC has taken priority over solving any national problem.
But now we have, supposedly, an opportunity to solve the problems. We have a Planning Ministry, headed by one of Zuma’s enemies who could not be easily fired, and we have a Ministry for Performance Management, although it appears to have neither the power nor the competence to manage performance (and it lacks the structures through which this would be done). We actually have less time than we think, since within a few years at most our window of opportunity to resolve problems will be gone. Meanwhile the problems mount up. Spending an extra half of one percent of the budget on unemployment is not much of an accomplishment (it is one-sixth of one percent of gross domestic product) especially when it is to be spent on unspecified “training” of a kind which the SETA programme on which it is apparently based has signally failed to provide, or to generate jobs out of.
Instead, we are watching the government play with its costly beads (so pretty, and so useful as trade goods in exchange for ivory or rubber or cotton or diamonds). We should be horrified. But we are told that all that matters is the game. Play up! Play up!
Until game over.