I REMEMBER 27 April 1994 as if it were yesterday. There was almost a sense of disbelief that 350 years of colonialism and white domination had culminated in a peaceful election for all citizens and an open democracy; the excitement of the birth of a new state and a new nation, against all predictions.
There was no civil war. There was no coup. Umkhonto we Sizwe did not triumphantly march through the streets with their AK47s. White and black did not kill each other in the streets. The world was in awe of our negotiated settlement, at the symbolism of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk.
It was three months after the demise of the original Vrye Weekblad, where we fought for that day in our own small way. I had just joined the “new" SABC but was not among the people who stood in long queues to vote on election day. I was in the studio as one of the anchors on television who had to help keep the nation informed with reports from the field and the reactions and comments of many opinion formers.
Everyone – black, brown and white, left, centre and right – with whom I spoke in the studio about the birth of the New South Africa were excited and proud. And yet, I realised in hindsight, there was an almost nervous undertone, not spoken out loud: Is this going to work? Is it going to last? Or is there a chance we will go the same way as Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola?
To a large extent, the colossus Mandela got us through the transitional period, as the Greek god Atlas had carried the heavens on his shoulders. But there was also Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's pipe-smoking, intellectual deputy as de facto prime minister, and able members of cabinet such as Joe Slovo, Dullah Omar, Tito Mboweni, Derek Hanekom, Zola Skweyiya, Trevor Manuel and Jay Naidoo. And also the National Party contingent, part of the government of national unity: deputy president FW de Klerk and ministers Roelf Meyer, Pik Botha, Dawie de Villiers, Kraai van Niekerk and Derek Keys.
When Mandela, by then an international icon, stepped down in 1999, we held another successful general election. Some untoward things had happened, such as the unnecessary and corrupt purchase of frigates, submarines and fighter jets, but which country doesn't have a scandal every now and then? The economy was still growing, the infrastructure was fine, and more people were given homes and access to electricity.
From liberation movement to political party
Mbeki's task was more difficult than that of Mandela, who was seen through the lens of the euphoria and symbolism of liberation and reconciliation. Mbeki had to transform the ANC from a liberation movement into a modern political party; he needed to address economic empowerment more decisively; he had to plan ahead for extensive urbanisation, education and healthcare for all, and build on the infrastructure to keep up with the growth.
But then he didn't.
Opposition from the Communist Party, the then still powerful Cosatu and exile traditionalists, groups from whom he had become increasingly alienated, prevented him from modernising the ANC. Instead of broadening the black masses' participation in the economy, he created a small, wealthy black elite. He stood by while experienced white expertise at all levels of government were let go prematurely or encouraged to take retrenchment packages, thus leaving huge voids. He stood by while teaching and nursing colleges were closed. He created a colossal, mostly inept and expensive public service that today makes up most of the black middle class. And he refused to listen to expert advice that the country would suffer under an electricity crisis from 2007 onwards.
In addition to his reckless, internet-driven obsession with HIV/AIDS, Mbeki's other single major failure was his refusal to release Judges Dikgang Moseneke and Sisi Khampepe's report on how Robert Mugabe stole the 2002 election in Zimbabwe. Southern Africa might have looked quite different today had Mbeki not protected Zanu-PF.
Mbeki had also set the scene for the dark side of the ANC to return when he insisted on making himself available for another term as ANC leader in 2007. Jacob Zuma became president shortly thereafter.
Zuma's nine years as president then undid much of what had been achieved since 1994. He brought out the worst in his party, destroyed accountability, undermined the rule of law, made corruption systemic, and damaged most state institutions. The ANC began to look more and more like Zanu-PF and the MPLA.
After Zuma came Ramaphosa 2.0
Civil society and the media responded in horror to Zuma's abuses, which led to the ANC’s election of Cyril Ramaphosa as leader in 2017.
But the jinn was already out of the bottle, and Ramaphosa 2.0 was then a different persona than the stern trade union leader and negotiator of the past. He spent more energy and political capital on preventing the ANC from splitting than on a vision for the restoration of South Africa as a constitutional state and the economy.
Ramaphosa's grotesque blunder this week, when he announced in the presence of the Finnish president and international camera crews that South Africa was going to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, and then just an hour or so later said no, sorry, I made a mistake, that's not going to happen, gives us a glimpse of who and what our president has become.
As I wrote last week, no other leader in my lifetime has squandered as much goodwill as Ramaphosa. History is going to judge him very harshly. Turns out he was not the Moses that led us out of the Zuma desert.
And here we are today, 29 years after our first day of freedom. Our economy is in recession. We have no electricity. We feel unsafe. Corruption, organised crime and cartels are rampant. Half the people who can work can't get jobs. Children are starving. Most municipalities are falling apart.
Experts and the wealthy are fleeing overseas. Many more, white, black and brown, wish they could leave too.
South Africa is a failed state, some say.
Where will our hope come from?
Article on Israel gives perspective
Yesterday I read an article about Israel by Bernard Avishai in The New Yorker which gave me new perspective. Israel is also celebrating its founding as a modern state this week, in their case 75 years ago.
Israel is without doubt a highly successful state, built in the dessert from nothing. But the severe divisions among the country's people now threaten the very essence of democracy and of nationhood, soon perhaps the economy as well.
There are two communities in Israel, Avishai writes, “one passably liberal and bourgeois, one traditional and supremacist, and the latter has finally encroached upon the former in ways that makes the idea of live and let live – once justified as a display of unity against foreign enemies – intolerable”. He is of course referring to the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who now dominate politics.
Avishai quotes a leading Tel Aviv University economist, Dan Ben-David: “Barely more than half of ultra-Orthodox men work for a living, and almost a quarter of Israeli toddlers are [brought up] ultra-Orthodox. Most ultra-Orthodox students learn the Talmud but not mathematics, history or English. Ben David notes that when these children grow up and become the majority, they will not be able to maintain a first-world economy.”
How does that compare to South Africa?
I honestly feel that, despite our bitter past and demographics, we as a nation deal far better with our differences and diversity than Israel (or the USA). There is no fundamental ideological or religious divide between us. The overwhelming majority of us have the same dreams and fears; we hate corruption, abuse of power and poor service delivery to the same degree and we all place a high premium on our freedom of speech and association. We all hope our children will be able to have a meaningful, satisfying life here.
Race no longer so dominant
Just ignore the twittering of the EFF, the RETs, Numsa et al who put so much emphasis on race. We are no ideal community and there is still far too much racism, but race, in my opinion, is no longer as dominant in our national discourse.
What gives me hope is the sense of urgency that I am currently seeing in our country to fight for a better dispensation. It spans all divisions, communities and regions.
Yes, there are the energetic opposition parties, new and older, but far more important are the grassroots movements that want to change the status quo. For example, I often deal with movements like the Defend Our Democracy campaign, In Transformation Initiative, Dialoog vir Aksie and Rise Mzansi, which is more than a political party. Solly Moeng has just founded The United South Africa Movement (TUSAM). At agricultural level, there are many exciting initiatives to empower workers and establish new farmers. There is more than one effort underway to establish a UDF-type front of civil society organizations. Every so often I take part in confidential discussions with influential people and community activists.
The people of South Africa are moving. And what everyone has in common is this motivation: We are better than this, as South Africans we deserve better. What's going on is not who we are.
We can start talking about People Power again.
Here is another indication of the fundamental shifts nationally: the ANC, which once believed it would rule until Jesus returns, has just decided to form an official policy on how the party should deal with coalitions at various levels if they lose power.
There is progress
The realisation that their hegemony is a thing of the past is shaking the Union Buildings and Luthuli House awake.
If we can significantly improve our electricity supply in the next year or so, and it seems likely that we can, then we will look at our country with different eyes.
There has already been significant progress in making our ports function better. Rail transport is also improving with the help of the private sector, and Prasa is reopening some of its passenger routes.
The energetic, innovative business sector has been one of the mainstays of our stability until now. There is still a lot of money in private hands in the country, but the enthusiasm to invest and start new businesses is on the wane.
We, the people, can turn this negativity around with our activism.
We, the people, can now also make the political leaders understand that we are more important than the empire-building of the political parties.
I kind of think we're going to be okay, maybe just not very soon.
♦ VWB ♦
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