A fine line between optimism and wishful thinking

William Saunderson-Meyer |

18 February 2022

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the recent national mood swings in SA


Optimism is an important trait. Aside from its well-researched role in achieving one’s objectives, it’s also simply more wearying of the soul to try to navigate life’s treacherous currents without it.

But in politics, where perception is everything, optimism is more than important, it’s vital. The praise singers and Hallelujah choristers can hold reality at bay for a surprisingly long time. At least long enough to allow the elites to salt away their assets and scramble to safety ahead of the marauding mob. The last flight to Dubai is boarding now…

And in excess, optimism can cause a fatal disconnect from reality. It becomes the kind of whistling in the dark that one saw right next door, in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and then in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. There, large numbers of people, despite holding diametrically opposed ideologies, insisted in the face of all evidence to the contrary that everything was peachy and destined to get peachier still.

This is perhaps the situation that South Africa is in right now. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Poll after poll over the past few years has delivered the same findings. South Africans are despondent about their economic and social circumstances. They are desperately worried about unemployment, crime and corruption and increasingly, these blights have affected them personally or someone close to them.


They have little faith in the country’s institutions. South Africa’ governing structures, public representatives, the judiciary, the media, the police, the military, all the political parties and most political leaders, elicit low levels of confidence and trust.

Nor is there is much hope that matters will improve. An IRR poll last year found that 68% of respondents believe that state capture is continuing, despite President CyrilRamaphosa ostensibly making the rooting out of corruption a priority. Similarly, an Afrobarometer poll found that 64% of South Africans believe that corruption has actually worsened under Ramaphosa, including in the office of the president itself.

These trends will likely have worsened in response to growing public unrest and violent crime, unemployment levels steadily approaching 50%, and the sombre findings of the judicial inquiry into state capture. Yet, Ramaphosa’s support among key constituencies like organised business and much of the media remains buoyant. It is his personal popularity that, to the relief of his party, has limited the scale of African National Congress electoral setbacks.

Despite the provocations of a failing economy and accelerating deindustrialisation, the corporate sector is muted in its criticisms and remains invested — in every sense of the word — in Ramaphosa’s survival. So, too, the majority of media voices.