Strive, the beloved country
A new centre is forming in our political life, writes Ferial Haffajee
The Economist. There is nothing wrong with what the publication said in its cover story Cry The Beloved Country a few weeks ago.
But there is so much more and a different way of looking at the same set of facts.
Our debt-to-GDP levels are manageable, especially if you cast your eye at the eurozone. Our public finances are well managed, with social spending never more than 5% of GDP.
In the hailstorm that is Marikana, we missed the news that tourism receipts are growing apace. Is this our future economy?
Trade is down largely because Europe is a sick man, but geography is our friend.
At the southern tip of Africa, we have every opportunity to tap into what many are predicting is going to be Africa’s century.
I am an optimistic South African, though armed with a full set of our realities. Sometimes, you have to look at your country through different eyes.
To your right is an image of my aunt on a recent trip to the Kruger. She may not look it, but she’s Swedish, though she was born here.
The last time my aunt visited was in the 1980s, when our country was teetering dangerously between yesterday and today.
Services had gone to the dogs, especially on the black beaches we visited and the coloured areas we lived in.
My aunt caused us to crack up with mirth when she went on about the badly kept blacks-only beach full of litter. And when she suggested we get the council to fix Bosmont (where we lived) . . . well, that just killed us.
Reel forward 25 years. My aunt’s back. She’s been everywhere. I hear her saying she may come back to retire here. She is effusive about South Africa. I am incredulous because, well, I trade on a different narrative.
I look at my country, my city, through her eyes. The developed tourist infrastructure, the kindness she encounters.
“People smile and are friendly,” she tells me, referring to all of us; the changes she sees; the preservation of Fordsburg where she was born; clever heritage work; options for the next generation that were not there before.
When I try to explain Julius Malema to her (the youth leader was in the news then), my words die in my mouth – it feels so small and incidental.
Marikana is different, of course. She gets a tourist view, but she’s doing ordinary things, so it’s also everyday life; good eyes through which to look at my country.
It makes me wonder whether we have the capacity to imagine ourselves differently – as world-class, prosperous, interesting, employed, democratic?
As winning, empowered, diverse, progressive? We are already many of these things, but it’s not in our understanding of ourselves.
Or are we so caught in the elements and ideologies of struggle that we need to constantly be in one?
The other day I heard ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe railing at Cosatu. He said they sounded just like the media, the judiciary and the opposition.
Our governing party, chiselled in revolution, knows no way but power and opposition – and we, the people, reflect it. Can we rise above this reflection?
In music, the arts and literature (and even elsewhere), something else is happening, the forging of different identities, a complete reimagining of what we are.
My soundtrack is Mi Casa, Spoek Mathambo and Die Antwoord, all South Africans who are creating diverse and path-breaking sounds reflecting interesting edges of our public life, of our developing identity.
We appear to exist on the edge of a precipice, lurching from crisis to crisis.
And we have crises: the highest HIV/Aids burden in the world by proportion of population infected; the most glaring inequalities, our opulence next to our deprivation, our bling next to our nothing; 3.5 million young people unemployed who feel completely looped out; and Marikana, a festering sore burst open, which has radicalised Cosatu and will, I predict, completely alter the mining industry’s raison d’être.
But we were led by the men and women of Marikana because for how much longer could the status quo in mining continue?
Its work structure, its systems of sociology and life need to be completely reimagined as Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Gold Fields chairperson Mamphela Ramphele recently said.
That is the calling of the time – for imagination and a can-do spirit.
Under an excellent Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, the public health system is also being rebuilt.
Soweto is a good news story of development from township to city – and there are hundreds of other places where the developmental state is more than a slogan.
So is the social safety net erected to catch almost 16 million vulnerable South Africans. There are others.
Why, when one raises these things, is it so hard for our thinkers to see the good? Or am I a Pollyanna?
Perhaps, but I’ve come to the conclusion that we remain slaves to our past, slaves to being in crisis, slaves to a failure of imagining our dreamscape only as that halcyon month of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. But our striving, our potential, lies in the everyday and we are more than how we think of ourselves.
Our penchant for protest, for organising, for opposing are good DNA, not bad.
State securocrats have been through their paces and been terrorised by the Right2Know campaign, so much so that they have not been able to pass the Protection of State Information Bill for three years now.
This should get us a ratings upgrade, not a downgrade, for it speaks of a strong and organised civil society that is democracy’s greatest bulwark.
Protests each day keep councillors’ feet to the fire. We track four areas to assess governance, and have found progress is slow, but protests do result in some action. (See our Tatane Project this week.)
Toilets, ARVs, fracking and textbooks are four further examples of how social delivery and accountability are secured in different and interesting ways. There is a new centre in our politics that will keep us stable.
We have already begun to imagine a country without the ANC as the lead social force for good and this can only be a good thing.
Have we come to a point where the ANC governs but does not lead, where it is no longer the firmament of the best ideas, the holder of the moral beacon? And if so, is that such a bad thing?
This was my key learning through The Spear. An old ANC brought free speech, artistic freedom fundamentalists and the culturally wounded together to find each other and reach a set of social mores, but this ANC used the incident as a convenient battering ram to prop up an old buffalo on the attack from young lions.
In so doing, it was willing to sacrifice the rule of law, free expression and artistic licence.
Marikana was another occasion when we were led by forces other than the ANC: the CCMA, the churches, the miners and Peter Alexander from the University of Johannesburg, who undertook independent research into what happened at Small Koppie.
We are on the edge of building a new centre, like a solar plexus that keeps us together, that saves us from failed statehood.
And we have a fine plan, crafted in government where a great many good things are still happening, if we care to look.
The National Development Plan is a clever and practical vision of what we might look like by 2030.
The vision is buttressed by excellent research – 26 commissioners sat down for over a year and debated the plan. They were a mini constitutional assembly, all very clever and all very different.
Sadly, South Africa’s response has been lukewarm and we, the people and our government, appear intent on ignoring it completely. Though we should not.
The vision of a decent life is finally fleshed out. It sets a philosophy that has still failed to take at mass level, but must:
Why don’t we want to make it a reality? Sometimes it feels to me as if we are more comfortable in a state of struggle, to live in what some fellow citizens disparagingly call “this country”.
You know it: “This country is so corrupt. They couldn’t run a garage.”
We suffer the jaundiced bigotry of low expectations. Instead, I am deeply hopeful, guided by people such as Trevor Manuel, Motsoaledi, Ramphele, Zackie Achmat and Gavin Silber (the activist behind civic and court action for textbooks, and against terrible toilets).
They show us how to lead from the middle when the state flails, when the movement fumbles and loses its centre.
From the 1950s, our forebears had a vision to see us as free. They painted dreams on the bleakest of landscapes and then painfully coloured them in until they were realised.
I feel we are finding that imagination again.