I arrived in Johannesburg to find it sunk in gloom – literally. The lights go out regularly, often for hours at a time. Eskom, the state-owned electricity company, compensates for its lack of investment with “load shedding” or power cuts.
The darkness is tough on families, but on businesses too, and is a drag on investment and expansion.
Economic growth is low and unemployment high. Beggars with cardboard signs plead with drivers as they stop at red lights. That is, when the lights are working; during power cuts they go dark.
After falling for five years, murders rose in 2013-14 for the second consecutive year, to more than 17,000.
Jacob Zuma, the president, sneered in May at opposition members of parliament who demanded that he pay back taxpayers’ funds spent on his private residence at Nkandla.
Although a report by the public prosecutor last year recommended that Mr Zuma return some of the money, a police investigation said that upgrades at the residence were security necessities. They included a swimming pool that could be used to put out fires.
But amid the malaise, I saw three reasons to be cheerful.
1) Speech in South Africa is free and ferocious. An MP debating the government’s decision to allow Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, to leave South Africa in spite of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court and a local court order, called the ruling African National Congress “a lawless regime” in a debate broadcast live on television.
Journalists assail Mr Zuma and his government. “Where is the ANC’s leadership? Too many have given up and are looting as much as they can while the going is good,” the columnist Justice Malala wrote in The Times, a local newspaper.
South African press freedom faces threats. Parliament passed the Protection of State Information Bill, with severe punishments for leaking or possessing a wide range of information. But Mr Zuma has not yet signed it. Journalists I spoke to thought he was wary of the law being challenged in the Constitutional Court, which brings me to the second reason to be cheerful:
2) The judiciary remains resolutely independent. There have been persistent fears that South Africa’s judges would be forced to bend to the will of the government. It hasn’t happened. Even Mr Zuma’s new appointments, selected from a list submitted to him by the Judicial Service Commission, have dispelled fears that they would do his bidding.
The Mail & Guardian, a critic of South African malpractice, called Mogoeng Mogoeng, a controversial appointment as chief justice, “the ‘puppet’ who tore off his strings”. The paper said of Mr Mogoeng: “He was widely expected to be President Jacob Zuma’s lackey, but he has since proved some detractors wrong.”
The government does not enjoy this judicial independence. Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister, accused some judges of “deliberately overreaching”.
It is also disturbing that the government ignored the Pretoria high court’s order that it detain Mr Bashir. The court responded by asking prosecutors to consider charging the government and added: “A court is the guardian of justice, the cornerstone of a democratic system based on the rule of law. If the state . . . does not abide by court orders, the democratic edifice will crumble stone-by-stone until it collapses and chaos ensues.”
Independent judges are helping to keep that chaos at bay.
3) So are ordinary people, whose projects are the third reason to be cheerful. I was in Johannesburg to chair a symposium last week on corporate longevity, part of a year-long Financial Times investigation into why some companies live for centuries while most die within a few years or, at most, decades.
There were several old companies at the event, but there were new ones too. There was Ezlyn Barends, whom I interviewed on stage, a young businesswomen and leader of two mentoring organisations. There were others who came up to me afterwards to discuss their business ventures.
In downtown Johannesburg, once seemingly abandoned to squatters and crime, entrepreneurs are restoring apartments and running restaurants, markets, galleries and cinemas. These places are filled with relaxed, racially-mixed crowds, busily proving that a country is more than its government.
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