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Rainbow's End: Chapter 4 - The Signals

... He thought about each signal and wondered what had been the final trigger; the final straw on the back of the camel. Was it only one individual signal that had resulted in the rampage and carnage that had eventually erupted?...

Jake van der Wilden continues his apocalyptic story.

Prior to almost every major event there is usually some sort of signal, or warning. A volcano would begin to rumble, atmospheric pressure would drop, or just before a tsunami the ocean would recede. Would certain signs not also herald a major change in a country? The sad truth was, that the signs, although apparent everywhere, and fairly obvious, were often ignored, or rationalised.

One of the early signs indicating that a problem was developing in the country was a phenomenon related to something as innocuous as road traffic. It began when people started ignoring the rules of the road. Stop signs were ignored, speed restrictions were a joke, and traffic lights were treated as decorations. A very large percentage of these traffic lights did not work, and the companies charged with maintaining them did not seem to know what to do about it. Even though traffic lanes were significant, and the basic rule of traffic was to keep left, the rules were ignored by many. The lines were painted regularly to give employment to the unemployed, and at times to the unemployable, but seldom achieved their real purpose.

Another signal was that road rage replaced road safety. The ubiquitous ‘taxis’ were a plague that caused many a road rage incident. They were responsible for a high percentage of the road deaths, their drivers being untrained and their vehicles unsafe with bald tyres and poor brakes. They had a total disregard for speed limits and traffic signs, annoying those drivers trying to keep to the rules. Long distance bus and taxi trips often resulted in multiple deaths mostly because the drivers fell asleep at the wheel as they had no relief drivers. The carnage on the roads, more evident at holiday times because of the increased traffic flow, was incredible, and cost the country billions.

He remembered reading an article about taxi driver safety (sic), and had been particularly appalled when he came across a report on a taxi that had been stopped for travelling at 120 km p/h on a secondary road. The steering wheel had been replaced with a vice grip to allow seating place for one extra passenger on the front seat. It was clearly an accident looking for a place to happen; with 18 passengers plus their luggage in a vehicle designed for 14 passengers. Horror stories were not restricted to any particular section of the road-using community. Several drivers of high performance and expensive cars, were caught driving at speeds of up to 300 km p/h in a 120km p/h zone. It was as if a new culture was developing; a culture that said: ‘If they can get away with it, so can we.’ Nobody ever seemed to articulate who ‘they’ were, but it seemed a useful excuse. Rules appeared to have expired, they belonged to the past. He wondered if this blatant disobedience of the rules was somehow related to the idea that the ‘struggle’, as it had been known, had led to people confusing freedom, with anarchy and licence to do as they pleased.

Then there were the numerous discussions about the condition of the roads and the need for ongoing main-tenance and improvement. Many people asked what was happening to all the levies and tolls being paid, and why no improvement was visible − other than on a few major roads. As per usual the replies were vague; no money was available, or many millions were needed that would have to be recovered from the road users. Hugely expensive toll units were introduced, guaranteed to make some people behind the scenes unbelievably rich, while putting an added burden for shoulders of the already overburdened motorist.

Corruption and corrupt officials was another a major problem − and another signal. It was not restricted to any particular sector, or business. Bribery, and so-called ‘comissions’ were being paid to the decision-makers to ‘sweeten the deal’ not just in situations involving State expenditure, but also in business in general. Local government officials and people in government departments were arrested for abusing their power, giving contracts to friends/family, accepting bribes, or simply helping themselves to funds. Many senior officials in local or quasi Government organisations voted themselves huge salaries and bonuses, totally out of keeping with their performance or their contributions. Qualified audits by Government auditors (a clear sign that all was not in order), were the order of the day, with many senior officials being accused of financial mismanagement. Yet there never appeared to be many successful prosecutions, as the courts were so overloaded it could take two years or more to finalise a case, by which time many of the witnesses had mysteriously disappeared or forgotten what actually had happened.

The functioning of the courts was another sign that all was not well with the system. The high incidence of cases against prominent politicians, and their associates, fizzling out over time, sent the message to the thinking population that justice had become less important than political expediency. There were high profile cases where serious charges had been laid, but the impression was given that the powers that be were reluctant to take action against their own, unless it was someone who had ceased to be the flavour of the month. The thinking population had seen this as a clear signal that the law was going to be used to serve the people who ran the system. Whether this was factual or not (and there was a great deal of evidence to support the allegations) the bottom line was that this was the perception of the man on the street.

During the first decade of the 2000’s the declared policy to appoint judges to the bench was yet another unobtrusive signal. Not only was gender and racial equality emphasised at the cost of competence, but a low-keyed signal was also sent out that the Government controlled the judicial appointments, the unwritten message stating that anyone who disagreed with the party line might not be ‘The Honourable’ for very long. While this may not have been at the expense of competence, it was not difficult for people to draw the conclusion that all was not well within the judicial appointment system.

Another case in point was the situation north of the border in Zimbabwe, where the country was clearly being run by a dictatorship. Horror stories emanated from this country of violence and intimidation where elections were rigged and the legitimate winners of the election were not permitted to take over the government. Despite the clear signs that all was not well, the Government in South Africa refused to take strong action. Talks about talks about talks were arranged, but no condemnation or sanction was imposed. The message to the people was clear – ‘We will not allow the rest of the world tell us what to do, and we will support those who supported us in the 'struggle', irrespect-ive of the implications for our country.’

This policy seemed to have the effect of rolling out the welcome mat to all the erstwhile struggle supporters. Hundreds of thousands of refugees moved south, accom-panied, as always, by the criminal opportunists. The result was a huge influx of people from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Angola and other countries in Africa. The effect on the local economy and the workforce was nothing short of terrifying, but, once again, the authorities decided that South Africa would be seen as ‘the good guys’. Jack found it ironic that the Government condemned the numerous incidents of xenophobia that started taking place, when it was abundantly clear that they had caused the problem in the first place.

The ‘good guys act’ became a recipe for disaster, based on simple economics. Many local employers preferred to hire these foreigners, whom they claimed, not only worked harder than the locals, they were also better educated than they were. Local labour posed their own problem by making unrealistic wage demands. They were supported by the Unions who campaigned for higher wages for their members, with no matching productivity quid pro quo. They also tried to ban the so-called ‘labour brokers’ as they would provide labour to organisations that were af-fected by employee action, either through strikes, or by staff staying away. This of course weakened the absolute control of the Unions over the labour force, especially since they had already managed to send out a signal that they were the real power in the country. Ultimately, they wanted to force the ruling party to eliminate any threat to their position. Indeed a clear red flag signal to commerce and industry.

It seemed as if the Unions had indoctrinated the workforce to believe that they were entitled to increases that were higher than the inflation rate. They did not seem to grasp the fact that such increases had exactly the opposite effect. Employers merely passed on the increase in wages to the consumer, and the employee, now thrilled about his 6% increase discovered that prices had increased by 7%. So, back they went to the drawing board, with more demands for inflation related increases. The employers were not exactly blameless, as they also climbed on the bandwagon and took their pound of flesh (more like several kilograms), and then paid themselves salaries running into the millions per year. This was not what they earned; it was merely what they were paid − another sign that someone had lost the plot.

Another contributor to the build-up to the catastrophe that overtook the country was the revelation that billions of rand had been lost in awarding Government tenders. Work was given to companies that did not have the skills, the capital, or the manpower to do the jobs for which they had tendered, evidenced by the failure to meet deadlines, or budgets. Despite these clear indicators that all was not well, the practice continued unabated. The vendors asked for, and received, huge advances, and then promptly disappeared. He had personal experience of one Govern-ment project where the authorities in charge of upgrading a Government facility had repeated the ‘tender/award/pay advance and disappear’ exercise three times. When the authorities realised what was happening to them, they had already lost large amounts of money, before finally awarding the tender to a reputable construction company. The original budget had been exceeded by 200 percent, not uncommon in the circumstances.

What about the tenders awarded for the building of RDP housing? It was clearly another signal when many of the houses just collapsed, or were unusable because of poor workmanship, and shoddy finishes. Of course, this caused great indignation at high levels. Again Jack asked the rhetorical question: ‘Why are they so upset? Didn’t they create the system in the first place by awarding contracts on the grounds of political pressure, rather than competence?’

One of Jack's first lessons in business had been learnt from a venerable gentleman called John O’ Meara, who ran a company that trained people in the HR field. During a session that dealt with decision making O’ Meara had said; ‘In any endeavour, new or existing, there are three considerations; technical practicality, economic viability, and political expediency. At the end of the day, the only one that really seems to matter is political expediency.’ How prophetic his words had been.

He thought about each signal and wondered what had been the final trigger; the final straw on the back of the camel. Was it only one individual signal that had resulted in the rampage and carnage that had eventually erupted? In retrospect, he concluded that each signal had its own domino effect. Eventually the domino effects interlinked and they became impossible to untangle, a snowball effect developed that contributed to the creation of this monstrous problem.

In his early working years, the norm had been to be at work early, and to stay on until your work for the day was finished. In those days you did not go on strike for higher salaries, more overtime, or bigger bonuses, because you realised you had to earn these. It was not a right, but a reward you earned for good performance and output. How times had changed - and not for the better!

In the distance he saw the sun rising. He had to get some sleep if he wanted to organise himself later in the day to prepare for his foray into the open. What was the first item on his ‘To Do’ list? The first priority, he needed some form of transport, a light practical vehicle. His first challenge was to find the material to build it.


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