South Africa: Je suis Cheslin


South Africa: Je suis Cheslin

Cheslin Kolbe's extraordinary blocking of a conversion kick that helped the Springboks beat France is a metaphor for who we are as South Africans. We are a colourful, interesting bunch of bliksems who won't give up, muses MAX DU PREEZ after a good night's rest, a plate of pap and a double espresso.


WE South Africans are addicted to hope, I catch myself saying in an interview with a British journalist this week. Only when the words are out and the journalist's head nods in approval to say, “great soundbite", I wonder if it's really a true statement.

I know why those words popped into my head. I've never had any appetite to badmouth my country to a foreign audience. I don't lie and am careful with the lipstick on the pig's lips, but let's say I tend to emphasise the positives over the negatives.

Things aren't going well with South Africa's governance and economy, I had to tell the BBC guy. And then my old favorite refrain: but a bad government and a struggling economy don't define us as a nation.

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I could see how hard he was trying not to roll his eyes. His straightforward question was then: “So you're saying the present decline is simply a blip?"

No, it's probably more than just a temporary deviation, I had to admit. But it doesn't tell our whole story and doesn't mean we're inexorably heading towards becoming a failed state.

And then the words slipped out: “We're addicted to hope, we South Africans."

I think the guy half believed me, but as a genetic Calvinist, I later deeply reflected on whether I had just sold a horse turd as a fig, as we say in Afrikaans. Hope must be more than just a warm feeling or a sentiment of loyalty. And there, my thoughts went down the rabbit hole.

A rumour of spring

I published a book in late 2013: A Rumour of Spring — South Africa after 20 Years of Democracy. (It couldn't have been too bad, as it received the 2014 Alan Paton Award for non-fiction.) I find it insightful to read what I thought and wrote 10 years ago — remember, Jacob Zuma was firmly entrenched as president back then, and a lot of water has since flowed under the bridge.

I didn't write very positively about Zuma. “He is caught between his instinct as a Zulu traditionalist, an MK soldier, a security and intelligence operative, and a political street fighter on the one hand, and the restrictions and challenges of heading a modern constitutional state, a sophisticated market economy, and an open, diverse society on the other."

Zuma was out of sync with the national psyche, I declared, and predicted that he wouldn't serve his entire second term.

I then expressed hope that Cyril Ramaphosa would take over, which happened four years later. And then, the last words in the book: “But there's another development that makes me even more optimistic about the future: the reawakening of civil society.

“My weather report says that winter will persist for a while, but there is a promise of an eventual spring. It might be accompanied by a few severe thunderstorms, though. There is, after all, more to South Africa and South Africans than the president and the government of the day."

Has this hope been betrayed? Was my “rumour of spring" just a mirage? Because our infrastructure has continued to crumble over the past decade, the state's service delivery is still declining and corruption is still rampant.

Ramaphosa called the hoped-for revival the “New Dawn" but very few warming rays have reached us. And here we are now in October 2023 up Shit Creek.

I tried to explain this to my BBC colleague.  Every group, ethnic or national movement, people or nation has its dark side. It's the leadership's job to keep that element in check. Nelson Mandela, even Thabo Mbeki after him, and the leaders around them did a good job.

And then, due to a complex confluence of circumstances, power struggles and opportunism, Zuma became president of the ANC in 2007. He was everything but a democrat in his life as an MK officer and head of ANC intelligence. He was part of the culture in the ANC in exile to torture and kill dissenters.

He was a semi-literate tribal Zulu who used his ethnicity to strengthen his position of power. An induna, rather than a president.

His election as president of the ANC and of South Africa unleashed the dark side of the ANC and gave it unchecked power. From this, state capture and the erosion of the justice system and state-owned enterprises were born.

A delayed dawn

A critical mass of South Africans rejected this new trend, and ultimately the ANC itself got rid of Zuma and replaced him with his complete opposite, Ramaphosa, who promised significant “renewal" after “nine lost years".

Here is former President Thabo Mbeki's judgment on this matter at Aziz Pahad's funeral over the weekend: “We did not renew the ANC after that conference resolution of 2017. That resolution has been repeated by the conference of 2022, to renew the ANC. That was 10 months ago — nothing has happened to renew the ANC."

There are many explanations and excuses for this. One important thing to understand is that it is very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle once it has escaped.

Tenderpreneurs big and small, ANC cadres and cunning businessmen with ANC connections made hay while the sun shone. Corruption and the theft of public funds were justified as black economic empowerment. It was our chance to eat, was the attitude. Let's steal ourselves out of inequality.

You can't easily undo nine years of this.

Well, if you really want to undo it, you need a leader who will confront the dark side head-on. And our dear Cyril Ramaphosa didn't have the stomach for that. He systematically removed most Zuma elements (which they themselves dubbed the RETs) but the culture of rent-seeking and a laissez-faire style of governance persisted.

And now the nation is properly sick of it. A recent opinion poll found that Ramaphosa's popularity among the public had dropped from 66% to 40% in two years.

Send the bomb squad

Many polls have found that there is a 50/50 chance the ANC will lose the general election next year. In 2021, the party's support in local elections dropped to 46%.

South Africa is once again in the midst of self-correction, as we have been so many times in history. We sometimes take our time, but eventually we do it.

The energy that has been bubbling up in civil society in the past year or two is something very special; something that doesn't happen in many other nations.

We see it at the local level where residents join hands to make neighbourhoods livable.

We see it with a whole range of national initiatives to mobilise voters to register and vote, to bring community organisations together in a new resistance against decay and poverty.

We see it with opposition parties forming coalitions and senior business leaders stepping in to help the government get infrastructure and services back on track.

We South Africans have decided to do a Cheslin again. And next year we'll send the bomb squad onto the field, as the Springboks do with substitutes in the last 30 minutes of a match.

It's exciting, isn't it?

We complain and moan, but we also laugh. We make jokes and memes about potholes and load-shedding — in one ad campaign, our new national anthem is the sound of a generator.

It helps to look at the misfortunes and failures of other nations for perspective. America still has Donald Trump, Britain had Boris Johnson. Russia has a bloodthirsty dictator in Vladimir Putin, Hungary and Italy have far-right populists as heads of state. Israel has Bibi Netanyahu.

The difference is that developed countries have stronger institutions and economies to keep them on course no matter what the politicians do. We're not there yet. But we're on our way.

At least we're an interesting and colourful lot.

I refuse to fixate on Zuma or Malema or Mbalula. I'd rather think of Pieter-Dirk Uys, John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, silverback jurists like Johann Kriegler, Dikgang Moseneke and Raymond Zondo, Pretty Yende, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, Abdullah Ebrahim, Valiant Swart, Hotstix Mabuse, Black Coffee and David Kramer, the wise  Njabulo Ndebele, Deon Meyer, Damon Galgut, Marita van der Vyver, Antjie Krog and Zakes Mda, Zapiro, Marc Lottering, Nic Rabinowitz and Trevor Noah. And Imtiaz Suleiman of Gift of the Givers.

And I think of one-of-a-kind Rassie Erasmus and how he recently burst into tears when he told Makazole Mapimpi's life story. The other rugby nations can't stand him but quietly admire him.

I think of Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada and Siya Kolisi, now an international icon. And I think of Eben Etzebeth. Oh, Eben, you magnificent beast. Of Faf in his flag underwear. And Manie Libbok, Bongi Mbonambi, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Duane Vermeulen and Damian Willemse.

This is not an over-romanticisation; it's how I feel: I feel blessed to be a South African.

No, I didn't lie. I am addicted to hope.


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