Passers-by and a small crowd that had formed in front of the demonstrators kept remarking on their colour (the overwhelming majority of them white). They also gave vent to the regrettable views that the whites should go back to their European motherlands and that they had no right to protest action of that sort after all “they” put “us” through. I wondered if these people had any knowledge of the 1955 (South) African National Congress Charter of Liberty’s invocation, “South Africa belongs to all its inhabitants, black and white”? (This remains a cardinal principle in our constitutional democracy and is now rendered without the “black and white” to be more inclusive and to discount any impression that these issues touch the these 2 groups to the exclusion of Indian and Coloreds.) Not to mention that the demonstrators, white they might have been, in all likelihood have very little connection to Europe beyond the superficial links of remote descent.
The more politically aware of the passers-by acknowledged the demonstrators’ freedom of speech and assembly, but at the same time negated them in observing that the demonstrators had no real grounds upon which to express discontent (neither with Zuma nor with the unfolding interference) since they were not being shot at by agents of an oppressive state. They showed a determination to drown out the voices of demonstrators by breaking into struggle songs, laughing raucously, pointing and brandishing ANC paraphernalia in the air.
“Will we ever get past our history?” I reflected. Such occurrences constitute an assault on the political sensibilities and ideology of a born-free who has enjoyed for the most part education in the progressive, liberal tradition. Any event that smacks even slightly of racial antipathy sends such a person into distress. Well, that’s if he does not live in the world and is somehow unburdened by the persisting reality of unjust treatment of people of colour the world over.
I do not think I exaggerate in observing that white people haven’t much space to express political dissent in the public sphere. If they demonstrate in important public spaces, it must feel like the action is undertaken at great personal risk. This is a problem. Yet my moral indignation is tempered with and assuaged by a critical appreciation of some important facts of our country’s particular transitional moment.
In 1994, the path of Reconciliation was chosen. While laudable, this policy entails for the previously oppressed serious psychological and economic costs. Consented to or not, the legal and moral requirement to treat former masters as peers – to consort cheek by jowl as compatriots – is a tall order. Unlike other permutations of colonialism around the globe, the South African case (as with the American case) presented the peculiar problem of geographic proximity. One need not qualify the tensions of close cohabitation and daily confrontation with former masters who claim to be as much entitled to the land that they acquired or inherited through vice when power has changed hands.
Furthermore, it would be challenging enough to clear the slates with individual and institutional racism completely overcome, which is not the reality. Resentment is inevitable when the expectation from the formerly empowered appears to be for the formerly disempowered to rapidly forget rather than “simply” forgive past ills. In terms of economy, the black people of South Africa are still a colonized people. Wealth, the means of production, profitable land, access to education and acumen – all acquired through centuries of theft and unequal discriminatory policy – remain concentrated in white communities.
With no serious specific penalties for racist sentiment and action and no assessment of reparations on the formerly empowered, the real burdens of reconciliation fall upon the formerly oppressed. It is they who have to swallow hard feelings, to prove themselves worthy of the new opportunities to which they have access and to lift themselves out of poverty (with the much needed aid of affirmative action, despite privilege-inspired white whining). Still, in the pursuit of justice and reinvention, reconciliation was the least of all possible evils.
Apartheid and colonialism before it conferred upon white people in this country (stated in the passive voice, though the formation was by no means passive) political power, economic control, and social prestige. If you have ever wondered why the ANC is so uncontested in its rule, it would do well to remember this. Beyond the sentiment of loyalty that marks many black people’s relationship to the long history of struggle against apartheid championed by the ANC, there is the simple fact of the group’s size.
The ANC represents to many black people justice. The political power focused within the party’s numbers and its black voice is compensation for scant economic freedom and social prestige, which have much longer turnaround periods in comparison. Stated differently, the monopoly like reality of black political decision making power is an insurance policy for the previously disadvantaged in the face of entrenched socio-economic inequality.
Many black people take any opportunity they can to remind themselves of and reassert to their former adversaries this important truth, even if the upshot is the squeezing of white political existence and opinion into ever smaller enclaves. But whatever they have lost in political strength, white people still enjoy a great deal of economic prosperity and social deference due to a multiple century head-start in the accumulation of wealth, expertise, access to world class education, positive narration of their history and the ingrained inferiority complexes among the non-white groups. To be sure, these are being undone but at a slower rate than the rate of other social transformations.
It is my view that, apart from the ANC’s glowing history (as marked by its impressive achievements and its charismatic personalities), support for the party is driven in large measure by black fear. Black people can and have dealt exceptionally well with accepting the transition of power on peaceful terms in the spirit of forbearance and camaraderie. Nevertheless, the spectral prospect, however slight, of being returned to white and white-conscious rule is too much to abide. The ANCs supermajority provides the most obvious and reliable safeguard against such an aberration.
This of course forms a self-sustaining positive feedback loop and, though ANC support has been dropping in recent years, the party is in no danger of losing power any time soon. The ANC has shown that it knows how to capitalize on black fear and to mobilize the party’s resources to spread the Gospel of its righteous rule.
To many black people, dividing power among opposing factions – however black they might be – is unthinkable on account of the remote threat it carries. Perish the thought if the next best option is the EFF with its host of vulgar, immature school assembly hall clown types whom distract and cause loss of valuable learning and doing time. The Democratic Alliance, to which the most important objection raised is its apparently white profile and white issue bent, is after all growing in strength, numbers and black viability – at least where young black professionals are concerned. This party, even with Mmusi Mmaimane at the wheel, gives corporeality to the specter of revived white rule. Besides, Mmaimane strikes many as a defector who has unintentionally sacrificed his identity and black issue advocacy for assimilation into a white machine with aspirations of utilizing indirect rule.
This country is and should be deeply indebted to the ANC. One has to question, nonetheless, whether the party and its agents continue to earn the vote now that revolutionary politics are defunct and irrelevant. The party already has a sense of entitlement emanating from its history. Supplement that with the tendency for people within a society that have long (for 22 years) enjoyed opportunities for the wielding of power, the accumulation of wealth and the commanding of authority and veneration to imagine – indeed, feel, they they enjoy all this as a matter of unqualified fairness or justice. Many ANC exponents posit that they rule by legal and moral right. To many any ordinary supporter, there is a mythic quality to the party, as if power is theirs by divine right as well. This is no mystery given Nelson Mandela’s deific role in the civic religion of the country. But, the past is not sufficient motivation upon which to base political decisions which concern a nation’s future. I grant that the ANC continues to cover itself with glory for all its contemporary achievements. There is no need to list them. It also continues to be unapologetically for the people – for that, it has my favor. Although service delivery forms a huge concern, for many – I think I include myself – the crux of the problem is not the party itself, its policies or aptitude. Social consensus, clandestinely joined by even the most immovable of ANC supporters, seems to converge on one weakness or failure: the leadership.
Leaders – their human imperfection duly noted – are supposed to be paragons of personal success, integrity, equanimity, brilliance and civic engagement. They are meant to inspire trust, admiration, and the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of life. I read Nelson Mandela’s works that spans his career as a young attorney through imprisonment to his post-presidential exploits in awe. I read Jacques Derrida’s rousing tribute For Nelson Mandela and, though I shouldn’t judge today’s leaders by the standards of a vastly different era, I cannot but envy my parents the role model that they had.
Reasonable people will agree that the political elite must exhibit a commitment to prioritizing the best interests of their constituencies over their own personal financial and status-related ambitions. They must dispense the mandates of their offices faithfully.
Charges of corruption, professional negligence, and incompetence – whether slanderous or factual, resulting in conviction or acquittal – do not comport with our national notion of good leadership. Less still does the mongering of laws that constitute and attack on a right as fundamental as freedom of press. In many cases, what we find here are examples of leaders rather than exemplary leaders.
Without resorting to name dropping and without developing the point isn’t too much detail, it can be asserted that a significant portion of the lack of confidence in this country stems from the perceived moral decay of those in power. Indeed, that is what the brave demonstrators on the town square I began with were protesting – the abuse of the public’s trust by elected representatives.
If you did not take his position, you had to concede all the same that Reverend Barney Pityana gave us a call for Zuma’s resignation of heart-rending and splintering thoughtfulness and eloquence. We all know how it feels to be or to regard oneself as having been betrayed. We know that the fruit of infidelity tend to metastasize until our whole being is sick with its poison. And we also know that once trust has been compromised, it is seldom regained or mended.
National pride is waning and rightly so because we are finally opening up to the idea that our union is not the ideal one that was promised, the one that we export on brochures. Ambivalence is good. We need to think critically about how to curtail what seems to me to be a dangerous nascent divisionism, one that is reflected in internal and external geographies of South African people and places. There was a time when I abstained from exercising my democratic right of franchise because I simply didn’t know whom to follow.
I am almost certain that there are no suitable political options for someone like me: a born-free who wants to reach past race politics and realize some form of democratic meritocracy. I am sure I am not alone in this. I have also been frustrated by the strong trend of political players to reduce everything to party politics. Our political parties take every opportunity to smear one another. They leverage the deficiencies of individual political agents, warranted or otherwise, to attack the policies of opposition parties.
The truth is I am guilty of mistaking at times passive consumption of political struggle for active participation. I cannot stand blithely by again. I never again want to pass up the opportunity to vote, thus I will chose from what is available in spite of my internal crisis. But what attitude to adopt when the boundary between realism and pessimism is all but effaced in the context of our political existence? How to vote? Who to follow and why?