The ANC has turned us into happy criminals, just like its cadres

Ideas

The ANC has turned us into happy criminals, just like its cadres

Recent state decisions have seen law-abiding citizens become at home with breaking the law, and why not?

Columnist
Evidence suggests Covid-19 is dangerous for diabetics, but there is no talk about banning sugary drinks. This has led some to believe that the alcohol and cigarette bans are part of a social-engineering project by the government.
Yes, no, maybe? Evidence suggests Covid-19 is dangerous for diabetics, but there is no talk about banning sugary drinks. This has led some to believe that the alcohol and cigarette bans are part of a social-engineering project by the government.
Image: 123RF/Stefano Carnevali

The state, I keep reading, has embarked on a programme of social engineering and we should all be very worried.

I understand where this anxiety comes from. When a so-called government has retreated from apparent clarity and pragmatism into a laager of secrecy and absurd contradiction from which it rules by decree, it’s difficult not to start seeing its edicts as evidence of some bigger, malevolent project.

Indeed, as evidence mounts that Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for diabetics, the ruling cabal’s appeals to medical science are looking flimsier than ever. After all, if you’ve banned alcohol to reduce strain on trauma wards and cigarettes because people share them, why has there been not even a whisper from the Collective Huddle about banning sugary drinks?

Such contradictions have inevitably given rise to the belief that the ban on cigarettes and alcohol are not about prophylaxis but prohibition; that they, and they alone, have been targeted as part of a larger scheme involving the personal agendas and perhaps even religious beliefs of leading ANC politicians, interwoven, as always, with political allegiances and patronage networks.

I’ve come very close to believing this theory. But despite some good circumstantial evidence, I can’t quite convince myself that this state, which can’t screw in a light bulb without breaking it and then trying to replace it with a rotten mango acquired from a minister’s nephew at a cost of R25m, has the capacity to plan and then execute a project of societal change.

Of course, I could be wrong, but I can’t help feeling that the crude, destructive edicts which look so much like social engineering are, in fact, the inevitable, Hail Mary lunges that happen when you’ve stolen all the money that might have built more hospitals and turned the police into a type of travelling inquisition that endlessly performs a spectacle of law enforcement by punching down at anyone who can’t punch up.

Indeed, it is now clear that while police minister Bheki Cele is good at turning the spotlight on himself, his real genius is his ability to point it somewhere else entirely. Without even realising we were doing it, many of us followed its bright beam uncritically, accepting the false choice presented to us by Cele’s employers; that we could either have a hospitality industry or hospital beds. The third option, in which police stop drunk drivers or increase their presence around drinking holes, was presented by a handful of commentators, but otherwise entirely ignored.

This is what happens when an extraction machine has given up the pretence of governing and instead focuses, for example, on stealing Covid-relief funds. Citizens stop asking for what’s best and start arguing about what’s available.

So no, I don’t believe the state is engaging in conscious social engineering any more than I believe the board of Steinhoff was planning to tank the value of state pension funds. When predators gorge, the bones of their victims fall in unpredictable patterns.

But I do believe that the state’s decisions over the past few months have altered our collective behaviour. Whether you call it accidental social engineering or the inevitable production of unintended consequences, what does seem clear is that most of us have become substantially more comfortable with breaking the law than we were before lockdown.

Mild-mannered, law-abiding suburbanites who prided themselves on their civic-mindedness are still mild-mannered, but only because they’ve found their local bootlegger and have made peace with stuffing the pockets of the cigarette mafia. The national curfew is a national joke.

I also suspect that we are about to see a meteoric rise in legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion.

If President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Sars can blithely shrug and say ‘no thanks’ to billions in revenue from the tobacco, alcohol and hospitality industries, surely it doesn’t need my thousands?

Before lockdown, I had tricked myself into enjoying paying tax. Instead of accepting that a healthy proportion of my labour would inevitably be stolen by ANC cadres or funnelled into tenders for non-existent services, I convinced myself that all of my income tax had somehow been ring-fenced by Sars for payment directly to a small rural school in a poverty-stricken part of the country. I felt that every cent counted and that I was doing good, in however small a way.

That fantasy has become impossible to sustain. After all, if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Sars can blithely shrug and say “no thanks” to billions in revenue from the tobacco, alcohol and hospitality industries, surely it doesn’t need my thousands?

Quietly, but inexorably, many of us have, I think, made peace with taking a step or two towards criminality, feeling, like professional gangsters, the absurdity of certain laws that prevent us from living what we consider normal lives.

It’s depressing, but perhaps let’s look on the bright side: if we’re all turning into lawbreakers, it means we’re becoming more like many of the people in government. And if they can call themselves “honourable”, so can we.