In the Spanish language, the infinitive of the verb “to wait” is “esperar”. As it happens, it is also the verb one would use to express the concept of “hope”. Waiting for a taxi in Buenos Aires, on a Saturday night after socialising out in the prestigious Recoleta area of the city, and wanting to get back to my hotel, I told the waiter I wanted the bill (“la cuenta”) and that I was waiting for a taxi.
“Yo espero por un taxi,” I told him in my pidgin Spanish. He called one for me. It happened also to be the night before the Argentine general election. Argentina had for many years been embroiled in the throes of complete economic meltdown. Things had got so bad that the currency, in the grip of hyperinflation, had lost so much of its value that the government had seen fit to peg it to the U.S. dollar. The distortion in the value of the Argentinian peso was so vast that a grey market in U.S. dollar notes had overtaken the official currency in transaction volumes.
High-end stores in even the most prestigious areas of Buenos Aires would not accept their own currency in cash, nor even credit cards in any currency, since foreign-denominated transactions would be converted to pesos at the official rate. If you wanted to buy an ice-cream, or if you wanted to buy a Tag Heuer watch, you needed to pay in hard U.S. dollar currency.
Flying into the Buenos Aires international airport a few days prior, I had been surprised on the taxi journey into the city centre to be delayed by a variety of informal roadblocks set up by citizens. There were streets upon streets that were blocked by burning tyres and baying youth, and there was real anger in the air. My taxi driver found a quiet street that we could slip through and then enter the inner circle of the city.
Once in the hotel, all seemed normal, if a little quiet. Strolling through the upmarket Recoleta area – beautiful early-twentieth period buildings, much in the style of parts of Madrid – it was apparent that, aside from the fact that one could not use a credit card, there seemed little disruption. In any case, it was clear that the hope of those I spoke to about the election, was that change was imminent and imperative.
The era of defaulting on foreign loans, hyperinflation, disruption to basic services, and extensive graft – “mordida” as it is called in Mexican slang – that had infected all layers of government, must come to an end. The people had had enough, and whilst there did not seem to be agreement between those I spoke to on the candidate who would win, there was clearly a real desire to elect change.
In Argentina, as I was to learn, it is law that one must vote – every citizen eighteen years of age and over. In fact, if one does not vote there is a nominal fine to be paid. The day of the election had seen more than a 78 percent turnout for the vote, I was to learn later back in South Africa, once the Argentine results had been announced.
The night I spent out before the election had been somewhat frustrating – it turned out that it is also a law in Argentina that it is illegal to serve alcohol the night before an election. There seemed in those I spoke with to be absolutely no issue with this restriction, or recognition of the paternalistic nature of this law. This meant that the bars and restaurants were generally empty and closed and that I had to satisfy myself with finding a restaurant to eat at in one of the grand old hotels of Buenos Aires.
The people I spoke with would generally use a kind of shrug, with an associated half-smile and utter the words “Yo espero” when I asked what they thought would happen to Argentina after the election. Would the U.S. currency peg be revoked, I asked? Would civil disobedience end? Would there be convictions made of corrupt politicians and businessmen? Would hyperinflation decline and would the economy revive?
Always I got the same response: “esperar” – to hope. Waiting for the taxi that night, it dawned on me that the word for “hope” in Spanish is a homonym when translated to English: to hope in Spanish is entirely the same as the idea of waiting; for hoping is, in fact, the very act of waiting.
It seems to me now, several years later, that in South Africa we have spent quite a long time waiting and hoping. Waiting – whether for a taxi, or whether for action to be taken by the National Prosecuting Authority, or whether for a political leader to take a clear and unencumbered position against corruption and state capture – is after all, nothing more than hoping.
And hoping is passive, as is waiting. It is, by definition, the opposite of action – it is inaction.
I waited more than 20 minutes for my taxi that night in Buenos Aires, there being few taxis at work since virtually no locals were out on the town, curtailed significantly by the ban on liquor. The streets were quiet and the people were at home, doubtless having gone to bed early, anticipating the queues for the vote the next day.
Oddly, despite the substantial evidence of state capture in South Africa, and despite the almost daily revelations of further government agency and state-owned enterprise executives being implicated in one or another cynical act of wilful myopia within these institutions whilst graft is taking place at obscene levels, there is a preponderance of inaction rather than action.
We – most of us – are pinned in a state of inaction, in a state of waiting, in a state of hoping. There are the investigative journalists, and there are the few business executives who have taken brave and unambiguous positions, and there are some lonely and angry voices, and of course there are the whistle-blowers – but in the main there is mostly just waiting, and hoping.
I wonder what it would take – whether we will have to experience hyperinflation and a complete disruption to daily commercial activity, for inaction to turn into action. Certainly, we do not want the burning of tyres and the siege of our cities, nor for a grey-currency cash market to become normal fare, nor for our businesses to shutter their windows and doors, while we simply wait – and hope. Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that we are still waiting – it is because we are not yet really affected.
Those who read business literature, those who read the State of Capture report, those who read the amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick and Financial Mail journalism, are few in number, and are generally of the privileged end of society. In the banking sector and in the insurance sector and in the corporate world in which we conduct our professional lives in consulting or lawyering or accounting or managing, we are not yet really and truly affected. The news is depressing and the tone is becoming more desperate and the authorities seem oddly silent, but the currency is stable and the stock market is relatively unaffected, and profits are still being made.
And so, in the main, it would appear that we simply continue to wait. But we should be cautious in our inaction, for at some point in time, it may be too late. There may be far less to hope for, and we will have waited in vain.