Flying the flag of a failed state

William Saunderson-Meyer |

13 May 2022

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the ANC’s resort to symbolic issues amidst the ruin it has wrought


Political leaders need to be quick on the uptake and nimble in the execution. 

One moment you’re sitting at your desk plotting your country’s triumphant entry into the Eurovision song contest. The next moment, through the smashed window, there’s a T-64 tank barrel pressed against your temple.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has proved to be a quick study in agility, possibly because of his previous life as an actor and comedian. Within days of the invasion, he was winning hearts and minds with impassioned Zoom addresses to national assemblies around the world. 

And his governmental apparatus has been similarly impressive. Despite being deluged by Russian-inflicted chaos and carnage, streets are being swept, potholes repaired, and the streetlights— where still standing — are having their burnt-out bulbs replaced. 

Less impressive has been President Vladimir Putin, perhaps burdened as he is with a previous existence as a toenail extractor for the KGB. No mental agility or finesse here. 


But then again, there’s no need to charm friends when you pick up most African Union countries and the world’s despotic regimes as a bargain-price job-lot. Nor is good governance required in a country where for centuries a tiny elite has perfected the blunt skills necessary to keep the sullen masses in line.

The lesson is that if head of an authoritarian state, you can be thick and slow because you can get away with it. But if you’re a politician in anything vaguely democratic, you have to be alert and responsive.

Except, as we well know, in South Africa. Vaguely democratic? Box ticked. Alert and responsive to threats and opportunities to the national welfare? You must be kidding.

It’s no secret that South Africa has been in a depressing downward spiral for some time. While there is a determined chorus of columnists and business leaders who promise that all will be fine if only we learnt to be “positive”, you know you’re in the dwang when the government’s own a cappella praise singers are faltering on the high notes.