NOT THIRSTY: The Toyota Prius consumed a negligible 4.8 litres of fuel per 100km on a drive from Johannesburg to Winterton, which, with petrol nearly at R13/l, is not to be sneezed at. Picture: QUICKPIC
NOT THIRSTY: The Toyota Prius consumed a negligible 4.8 litres of fuel per 100km on a drive from Johannesburg to Winterton, which, with petrol nearly at R13/l, is not to be sneezed at. Picture: QUICKPIC

ON MONDAY morning, Clayson Monyela, SA’s head of public diplomacy, tweeted various bits and pieces of good news, as he saw it, about SA’s international standing as reported by The Economist Intelligence Unit and other entities. He pointed out that SA is 28th out of 167 countries in the Democracy index, that the rand was "the second-best performing currency against the dollar between 2007 and 2011", that our banks are "2nd in the world for soundness" and that "the current police-to-population ratio is approximately 1:308 (SAPS – April 2011). This ranks SA as the 9th best."

And on it went. Monyela was doing his job, and much of what he said was arguable — the latter point, for example, that we are the ninth-most policed nation on earth and yet our crime remains what it is, could certainly be characterised as woeful, not "best".

And his tweet saying that "South African Tax Revenue has increased from R100bn in 1994 to R742.7bn in 2011-12" could also arguably represent a R650bn opportunity cost to our country for the year 2011, as opposed to the notion that this is a good thing.

But this is not the point. Monyela is quite outspoken on Twitter, which is in its way rather gratifying. He doesn’t hide and, inevitably, his positive tweets received a lot of responses from the usual suspects, for whom the world is black and white, straight up and down.

This has had me thinking about the nature of opposition politicians, whose job, they might argue, is to oppose. And while this is the case, I cannot see an existing party making huge advances into the African National Congress’s (ANC) voter base, because opposition politics can be so strident and incapable of venturing out of its middle-class laager.

The narrative that has the ANC as fundamentally corrupt to a soul, that sees the ANC as having failed in every single way, will never win a majority view. And that’s because it’s not true.

As we know, the ANC has housed millions, electrified countless dwellings and has expanded infrastructure to the benefit of millions of people.

I really do find the state the new ANC finds itself in depressing, especially in the context of the old ANC, but if opposition politicians and activists cannot remove the blinkers that obscure the value to a poor family of having a house to live in, and the sheer quantity of political capital that will have earned the ANC in that household, then they’re going to continue tilting at wildly irrelevant windmills. It is all well and good that there is a pothole hotline in the Cape Town city bowl. But if opposition politicians want to start making electoral headway on a national level, then, oddly, the starting point is understanding what the ANC has achieved, and to move on from there.

Middle-class people — usually white — often ask why people vote for the ANC again and again. The answer isn’t that hard to discern. Shouting abuse at the people who built the school attended by MaMpanza’s kids in KwaZulu-Natal is unlikely win her vote, no matter how much you bash her over the head with Nkandla.

This much is clear: opposition politics needs a new narrative, and writing it will not be an easy job. Life is easier to compartmentalise when the enemy is big and obvious. The ANC is the dragon for some and, for years in a land called Petrolheadia, the most awful monster of them all, the fire-breathing Cerberus of motoring miserabilism, of white-good, "transport solution" wretchedness, was that vanguard of the hybrid car, the Toyota Prius.

The environmentalism industry was largely responsible for this, with the Prius — quite possibly to the sheer horror of Toyota — becoming a talisman of responsible, future-oriented motoring. And gosh, how some railed against it and its adoption by those egregious prescriptive Hollywood hypocrites all those years ago.

But times move on, and so has the hybrid car. On Wednesday, petrol goes up another 40c/l. And while peak oil has been debunked as another lie out of the environmentalism industry, the short-to-medium term likelihood is that petrol prices will remain high, especially given the ailing rand.

And so, with blinkers discarded, I conducted an experiment. I put two kids, two adults and accompanying paraphernalia into a new Toyota Prius and pointed the nose to the Drakensberg for a weekend. Crucially, this wasn’t an economy run. I was not out to prove how efficient the car could be. I wanted to know, with the cruise control set to the speed limit, loaded to the gunwales, and with the air-con set to "arctic", what the car was like. And here’s the inconvenient truth about the Toyota Prius; first, the interior badly needs an upgrade. The plastics are awful and give the lie to Toyota’s assertion that this is a luxury car. That said, the car is well-specced, with a dated-feeling sat-nav system as standard, as well as reversing camera and so on.

It’s a spacious car for its exterior size, with just about enough room for a young family, although that aerodynamic roofline encroaches onto boot space. In terms of the drive, it’s still hardly entertaining, and that bane of petrolheads, the continuously variable transmission gearbox, still whinges like a tired two-year-old.

But, remember some context — nearly R13/l. The Prius, in the conditions I described, consumed 4.8l/100km on the way to Winterton from Johannesburg. And, uphill on the way back, it used 5.3l/100km, including a pumping headwind from Van Reenen to Joburg. That’s scarcely a jerry can — 20l of petrol — each way.

Many have said that you’d be able to match the Prius’s efficiency in a modern diesel car, but I’m not convinced you could in those conditions driving the way I was in anything other than a diesel VW Polo, which, lest we forget, is tiny and doesn’t have standard sat-nav.

It was always market forces, not Leonardo diCaprio, that were going to change consumer sentiment. The Toyota Prius is no longer a dragon, it’s just a slightly dull, mind-bogglingly clever, efficient family car. It is time for a new narrative on hybrids.