I have found myself thinking about Alex this week, though I haven’t seen him for years.

In the early 2000s, he was a familiar feature of my morning commute, working one intersection or another in central Cape Town for whatever loose change motorists idling at the lights were willing to drop into his polystyrene cup.

The most remarkable thing about Alex was that he had only one arm and one leg, managing somehow with a single crutch. The other memorable thing about him was his hat, a natty, apricot trilby that set him apart.

He always seemed to me an unlikely beggar – for two reasons, at least. Having lost half his limbs in a car accident, you’d have thought he’d be reluctant to venture into rush-hour traffic. The second reason – apart from that redeeming hat of his – was what I can best describe as his composure, his getting on with what George Orwell described as the ‘job’ of begging with minimum fuss, holding his features in an expression of what seemed merely sufficient gratitude that was, ultimately, dignifying for both parties.

I didn’t ever learn much about him – I even became doubtful about his name, realising I might have misheard him in the grind of the traffic, and that his smile when I greeted him was quite likely a forgiving one for a man who misnamed, and doggedly misaddressed, him.

Uncannily spirited

What I did know, without having to ask, was that he was uncannily spirited.

Once, moments before the lights changed, I raised my hand from the window to summon him along the line of cars. We both thought they’d change again and he could catch up. I slowed, he hurried, but the lights didn’t change and I sailed helplessly through the intersection, all the while watching miniature Alex in the side mirror, his lop-sided gait seeming all the more hopeless. He gave up eventually as the current of cars pulled us apart, and leaned, winded, on his crutch. His beaten off-kilter figure made me think of an injured bird, earthbound by misfortune. It was an irreparable circumstance, except for the hat – a triumph of jauntiness.

If he’s still around, one thing I’m certain of is that Alex is not working the traffic in downtown Cape Town right now.

In the greater scheme, this is a small, outwardly irrelevant speculation, yet it hints at a profounder truth the lockdown has revealed; when we South Africans went home to self-isolate on the evening of Thursday 26 March, we slipped back, the vast majority of us, into a country we thought we’d last lived in in the 1980s.

Most of us – in the tens of millions – have gone separately to our homes in the teeming townships and the still streets of suburbia as if there remains a law that separates us by the inerasable logic of apartheid

For all the change, the vast scale of the post-1994 reformation, the birthing of what used to be called the New South Africa, most of us – in the tens of millions – have gone separately to our homes in the teeming townships and the still streets of suburbia as if there remains a law that still separates us by the inerasable logic of apartheid.

And, of course, there is such a ‘law’ – it’s a law of economics, and it’s more stubborn and more compelling than any autocratic diktat.

You couldn’t wish for a plainer profile of its effects than the results of the Quality of Life (QOLI) Index created by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the Institute of Race Relations in 2017 to benchmark South Africa’s progress in improving the quality of life of its residents, and to draw comparisons between provinces and the four race groups.

Weighted factors

Based on ten weighted factors indicative of the quality of life of a person or household, each indicator translates into a score of between 0 and 10, with lower scores indicating poor performance and scores closer to 10, better performance.

The indicators are the matric pass rate; unemployment (based on the expanded definition); monthly expenditure levels of R10 000 or more; household tenure status (houses owned but not yet paid off to a bank); household access to piped water, electricity for cooking, and a basic sanitation facility; irregular or no waste removal, medical aid coverage and the murder rate.

The first index captured 2015/16 data. The second, published in November last year, captures 2018 data. Unsurprisingly (and it points to the desire among many – if not most – South Africans, highlighted in IRR surveys in recent years, for the advantages of a middle-class life in a city), both surveys show that more urbanised provinces demonstrate a significantly higher quality of life than largely rural ones.

In both indexes, Gauteng and the Western Cape are tied as the provinces with the best quality of life – each with a score of 6.4. (The Western Cape ranks in both as the best-performing province in most indicators, but is weighed down significantly by its high murder rate.) The national average in the 2017 index was 5.6, improving marginally in the second index to 5.7.

In the 2017 index, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape demonstrated the worst quality of life, each with a score of 5.0. In the 2019 index, Limpopo emerged as having the worst quality of life, with its score dropping slightly to 4.9.

Picture is stark

As I noted in a Daily Friend article earlier this year, for all the slight variations in the scores by race between 2017 and last year, the picture is stark: in both, white South Africans emerge with the highest quality-of-life score of 8.1 (when the murder data, not measurable by race but by province, is excluded) and 7.9 (when a nationally averaged murder rate is used). Outcomes were worst for black South Africans, with index scores in 2017 of 5.2 and 5.4 respectively, and 5.3 and 5.4 last year.

Indicators in which white South Africans had the best outcomes in both indexes include the matric pass rate, unemployment, expenditure exceeding R10 000 per month, mortgaged houses, waste removal, medical aid coverage and access to a basic sanitation facility. The outcomes were worst for black people on all indicators.

There is no doubt that the democratic project has brought immense benefits not only to the millions of people cheated of dignity, rights and opportunities by apartheid, but also to those who benefited.

There is no evading the damning political negligence of the past quarter of a century

But look around South Africa today – where we live, how we live, how separate we remain in our inherited condition – and there is no evading the damning political negligence of the past quarter of a century.

South Africa has doggedly pursued a path of gathering failure – and chiefly because it has tried and failed to defy the logic of economics: good schooling delivering people willing and able to succeed; economic policies that grow the economy, generating jobs and opportunities; empowerment policies that address disadvantage where it exists, and employment policies that match economic not ideological demands.

As my senior colleague, Institute of Race Relations (IRR) CEO Frans Cronje, said this week, the coronavirus crisis comes amidst ‘rising rates of unemployment, already a multiple of emerging market norms, and worsening living standards indicators’, a forecast deficit of -6.8% against an economic growth rate of just 0.9%, government debt levels that have more than doubled since 2009, and the continued squandering of ‘scarce financial resources on bailing out failing state-owned companies and sustaining cadre deployment networks – often via effectively corrupt empowerment schemes’.

Every policy threat

The immense economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, he warned, ‘risks becoming not just a temporary or short-term collapse but, given the weak position from which South Africa entered the Covid-19 crisis, a collapse that could condemn the great majority of South Africans to a long era of ever-deepening impoverishment. Critical now to avoiding that is removing as a matter of great urgency every policy threat to South Africa’s standing as a competitive investment destination.’

It is tragic that it has taken a menacing health crisis to bring this truth home, but, as the IRR has been emphasising in recent days, these are circumstances that require us to face the truth and act on it.

The strange unreality of the lockdown is less the seeming deserted-ness of usually bustling places – the certainty that Alex in his jaunty hat is not working the rush-hour traffic – but the default segregation of communities to a degree that is commensurate with the failure to genuinely turn South Africa into a modern, free, prospering state, for all its people.

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  • IRR head of media Michael Morris was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.