I thought I was past the point of being surprised by government’s capacity for stupidity.
So when I first read what I’m about to tell you about, it was like one of those things you don’t immediately comprehend – maybe a bit like the experience of getting shot.
I’m told gunshot victims don’t always realise right away they’ve been hit. The bullet strikes, and often goes right through them; unlike in the cowboy movies, you don’t get blown off your feet, screaming theatrically. The realisation of the horrible truth takes a moment. You suspect something terrible has just occurred, and look down in trepidation to see the dark stain spreading along the hungry fibres of your clothing.
“Oh crap, I’ve been shot,” you might think, before you pass out from shock and sudden blinding pain.
Sometimes comprehending the cluelessness of a political statement can spread into the brain nearly as painfully.
I felt this a few years ago while listening to the EFF’s Dali Mpofu attempting to explain how to boost the South African economy by increasing the amount given to people through social grants.
If all these people had more money, Mpofu said confidently, they would be able to buy more things and stimulate South Africa to economic greatness.
Mpofu may even have believed it himself, and I almost felt sorry for him. Clearly, as an advocate, this was a man well trained in how to win an argument by presenting a particular interpretation of reality (which may prove useful in a courtroom). It was probably for the best, because telling poor people you’re going to give them money if they vote for you seems to be part of the recipe to get at least 25 seats in parliament.
Had Mpofu been serious, one would have expected him to mention how the EFF would manage the inevitable trade-offs. How would they deal with higher inflation?; the problem of more tax on an already overburdened tax base?; or, at the very least, where they planned to get the next big loan to pay for it all from.
But no, he didn’t even take a moment to acknowledge that money for more and bigger grants has to come from somewhere, which will mean you’ll have less to spend on education, infrastructure, health or any other sector of society that has the potential to repay public investment with returns in the long run.
If you just print more cash or add a few zeros to everyone’s bank accounts, well … welcome to hyperinflation. When you stop pretending to take money seriously, it stops taking you seriously.
At least Mpofu will be able to stop worrying about buying toilet paper because it will be cheaper to use Madiba’s face. There’s always an upside for your backside, eh, Advocate.
So when the Mail & Guardian reported last week that the social development department had seriously suggested doubling welfare grants for six months – at an additional cost of R75 billion – ostensibly as a way to boost our sad little economy, it felt like I was being hit by all the bullets from the Stupid Machine Gun at once.
I understand, Susan Shabangu. Really. You probably meant well, but think it through.
We know it’s an open secret that your department has the dual role of being a campaigning arm for the ANC during elections, but they usually try to keep it subtle. We know the ANC wants the needy electorate to think it’s them providing all those desperately needed grants, and millions of voters do believe it. They’re terrified the money might stop if the ANC loses power (which is highly unlikely). And we know the ANC milks the story for all it’s worth.
Of course, it would be a great shot in the arm for a ruling party terrified at the imminent prospect of losing power to give away a nice, fat R75 billion food parcel right before the next election.
But doubling social grants for only six months will only make running what’s left of the country even harder. It might be possible, in the short term, to find the billions required to double the 17 million social grants. But good luck trying to take it back again.
After six months, anyone who was suddenly getting a pension of R3,400 will have gotten used to a different quality of life. Are they going to be content to go back to R1,700, possibly right after elections?
Maybe Susan Shabangu thinks grant recipients are all just old, disabled or children, and she shouldn’t be scared of them. But that’s the day you’ll see a 90-year-old gogo throwing a Molotov cocktail, and she’ll have her whole village there to help her light it.
Welfare taps only turn in one direction. They get jammed if you try to go clockwise. Once they’re flowing, it takes a brave and very strong counter-revolutionary to try to turn them off again.
Susan wasn’t thinking about that, though. Fortunately, she’s likely to be ignored.
Her department appears to have fallen into the trap so many ANC politicians now seem keen to be lured into: of trying to be the EFF or outdo the EFF at its own game, when what they really need to be – or attempt to be – is sane.
This same woman who once told the erstwhile ANC Youth League under Julius Malema where to get off when he threatened to nationalise mines while Shabangu was the mining minister now heads a department whose suggestions on the economy sound like they’re coming straight from a policy subdivision of the EFF.
In an era of Trump, maybe Susan Shabangu decided there’s no payoff in being sane any more.
I hope she’s wrong, but maybe not.
In which case, just shoot me.