Politics of symbolism

2010-01-07 00:00

AS we enter 2010, we should not let the immediate pressures to deliver a great showpiece for the Fifa Soccer World Cup shift our focus from the long- term task of building our democracy. Rather, we should turn the event into a much-needed tonic for the nation in terms of national psyche, international prestige and economic development.

Given the countless problems facing our transition to democracy, the decision to bid for the World Cup seemed like an unnecessary diversion and a drain on meagre resources needed to consolidate our democracy.

However, the World Cup is the single most important event South Africa will host in this decade. It brings with it lots of material benefits, depending on the host’s overall legacy planning. It also helps put the country on the world map and is a source of prestige that often lasts long after the games have ended. England still reaps the benefits of successfully hosting the cup way back in 1966. The cup is a wonderful example of how culture impacts on a country’s political and economic stability.

The hosting of a Fifa World Cup by an African country with a myriad problems is a complicated affair. Few believed that South Africa’s bid would succeed and they were proved right, at least temporarily, when we lost to Germany for 2006.

We decided to give it another try. This meant another four years of bidding and a another four years of preparations for the cup once our bid was successful. It was a major risk for a relatively poor country undergoing a difficult transition from apartheid. It was a bold step, one that suggests maturity in our leadership. The country’s leaders had so imbibed the sense of the time that they were willing to burden citizens with responsibilities that seemed ill-considered for people looking merely to survive poverty, disease and social disintegration.

Of course, they had learnt something about leadership under Nelson Mandela with his skilful use of symbolism to short-circuit all the government’s major tasks, from nation building to public service. Mandela was made an icon in the eighties by the mass democratic movement that mobilised around him, internally and internationally. This helped create a symbol of the South African struggle as embodying cosmopolitan values of human rights, democracy, peace-making, equitable development and non-racism.

Once in power, Mandela, fully conscious of his iconography, deployed the soft power of symbols to quicken the destruction of the culture of oppression, discrimination, violence and disunity. In his book, The Democratic Moment, Xolela Mangcu refers to the fact that Mandela bent over backwards to reach out to white folks.

Indeed, Mandela’s use of symbolism, from visiting Orania to embracing the lily-white Springbok rugby team as it clinched the rugby World Cup in 1996, set the tone for subsequent actions. We had barely set up institutions of democracy, but we put our hands up in a bid to host big events, from the World Conference Against Racism to the United Nations’ World Summit on Sustainable Development. Mandela and the ANC seemed to understand that such events influence people elsewhere to imagine South Africa as one of the leading countries in the world, an outcome that would quickly undo the effects of international isolation under apartheid.

If all our leaders understood the opportunity that 2010 presents for South Africa, they would come together a bit more and work on the preparations with a stronger sense of purpose. If they understood that the ripple effect in both material and immaterial (symbolic) terms will be with us through the new decade in the same way that the impact of the symbolism of the Mandela years manifested throughout the second decade of our democracy, they would mobilise citizens to become fully involved.

We are fortunate to have as our president a man who has demonstrated an excellent understanding of the utility of soft power. While it is still early to judge, there is no doubt that under Jacob Zuma the government is showing greater willingness to listen to and converse with ordinary people and civil society. It is displaying a visible sense of urgency and energy. Zuma himself has shown unusual respect for the opposition and organs of civil society. He has the charm needed to lead the politics of symbolism, while he has appointed a balanced team of mostly technocratic politicians to ensure the provision of public goods.

Precisely because of high expectations and the weight of public trust on Zuma, he will need to avoid the development of a cult around his personality. Our democracy needs collective leadership, active citizenship and strong institutions to sustain it. Otherwise, he will confront what Thabo Mbeki feared: a dream deferred that may explode at any time.

South Africa must more than recover its costs after the World Cup. The finalisation of the White Paper on National Strategic Planning under the auspices of Trevor Manuel must provide space for the citizenry and leadership to agree on how the lasting legacy will be built and preserved after the World Cup.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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