1 December 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: Rand Daily Mail
As the tide of woeful news grows, predictions of a dire future are gaining strength with some notable exceptions
Where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit. It's really quite amazing how the very same set of facts lead to radically different conclusions about what they mean. Take the travails afflicting South Africa at the moment. They make a long and depressing list and you're spoilt for choice on which to highlight.
Our ever-weakening currency - or the country's share price, as it is sometimes termed - has fallen more than 70% against the surging greenback in just over four years. The public service wage bill now gobbles up 42.2% of all government (read taxpayer-funded) expenditure and three million civil servants make the government the biggest single employer in South Africa by far.
Yet, across a swathe of functions, the state is barely functioning, from supplying electricity anywhere to safe drinking water in Gauteng.
The flagship national airline is the scene of boardroom battles even as it battles to stay aloft. The South African Post Office cannot deliver letters and even the much-admired South African Revenue Service is mired in allegations that one of its units ran a brothel.
Property rights, one of the key compromises in the constitution, are under threat, and not just from the land grabs by the Economic Freedom Fighters in Pretoria. A flurry of laws are excavating under the foundations so carefully constructed at Kempton Park in the early 1990s.
Our growth rate has dropped from the 5% achieved a decade ago, and the once-mighty tripartite alliance has been rent asunder.
The day after Nelson Mandela died, in December last year, the parliamentary speaker of his time, Dr Frene Ginwala, noted that in place of his normal batik-style shirts, South Africa's first democratically elected president "always wore a suit to parliament as a sign of his respect for the institution". And it wasn't just his sartorial choices that mattered both there and in the courts of law. He arrived, did his duty and even took the occasional judicial and political bullet that went against him.
The scenes of chaos in parliament two weeks ago - especially the fateful decision to send the police into its inner sanctum - show how far we have fallen since then, not least in our own estimation and in the eyes of the world, which has long since moved beyond the "miracle rising" narrative we once gave to a globe in need of heroes.
But is it a tipping point into failed-state status or simply a fork in the road to more competitive politics? Despite its enormous numbers at the moment, is the ANC staring long-term decline square in the face?
Of course, the governing party will reel off a host of statistics, from three-million houses delivered to 16million social grants deposited every month, to justify its claim that life is better today than it ever was.
But even for those sitting far away from government, commentators reading the tea leaves predict different futures. Just last week, two of these scenarios were on offer.
Financial analyst Magnus Heystek read the last rites for the rainbow nation on the back of what he called "jackbooted thugs in the most hallowed halls of democracy". I never thought of my former place of work in such sacrosanct terms. His conclusion set the Twitterati ablaze. Forecasting the demise of offshore investments, Heystek prognosticated that within five years the effects of weakening economic growth and further currency decline will see the "jackbooted bankers" from the Reserve Bank - "overnight and without warning" - switch off the offshore investment tap.
So, if you think your rand-hedged investments are a safe haven, think again, he suggests. He ends his cheery note with this zinger: "There are only two types of ex-Rhodesians in the world. Those who took all their money out of the country and those who wished they had."
DA leader Helen Zille is made of sterner stuff than this "apocalypse just now" scenario. Strangely, she describes herself as "exhilarated" by the recent events inside and outside parliament. She reads into the "deep crisis" in party and state the seeds of a campaign of "fighting back" (long after I thought the phrase was banned by the party) by civil society and through the accumulation of actions and pushback, "a prefect storm for fundamental change".
Her reference point is the Leipzig Moment in East Germany 25 years ago, when the people's demands for reform and freedom became unstoppable and eventually toppled the government and the Berlin Wall.
Of course, a major factor beyond "people power" in that revolution was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's decision not to use force to prop up his satellites. Locally, Marikana suggests that a different scenario could unfold here.
But what certainly links the collapsing Soviet empire with our state, apart from ideological nostalgia, is that when the money runs out, all settled futures become unknowable.
As US scenario consultant Ian Wilson said: "However good our futures research may be, we shall never be able to escape from the ultimate dilemma that all our knowledge is about the past, and all our decisions are about the future."
Perhaps before either packing your bags or at least sending your assets offshore while you can, the more earthy remark of former editor Steve Mulholland might chime with both history and expectation. He said: "Ever since I was five years old, I was always told that South Africa had five years to go before it exploded. Well, I'm 78 and we're both still here."
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA