Adriaan Basson

You are either a democrat or not. Decide today

2018-07-18 12:52
Mandela raises clenched fist, arriving to address mass rally, a few days after his release from jail, 25 February 1990, in  Bloemfontein. (Trevor Samson, AFP)

Mandela raises clenched fist, arriving to address mass rally, a few days after his release from jail, 25 February 1990, in Bloemfontein. (Trevor Samson, AFP)

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I have regularly overheard or participated in conversations over the past few months that went along these lines:

Person A: "South Africa is more polarised than ever. If we continue like this and things don't change, there will be a civil war soon."

Person B: "Nonsense. Just go out onto the streets of South Africa and you will see people of all races interacting, transacting and co-existing peacefully."

Person A: "Yes, but inside black people are very angry about the slow pace of transformation and white people are refusing to give back the wealth they accumulated under apartheid and colonialism. It's a ticking time bomb."

Person B: "But what must white people do? They already pay their taxes and create jobs. What more must they do?"

Person A: "Give back the land."

Person B: "I don't have land! I only have a townhouse in Fourways and a bond with Absa."

The level of public discourse, now mainly happening on the perilous streets of Facebook and Twitter, has degenerated into this type of binary discussions that mostly end with someone using profanities to insult the other person based on their race, gender or orientation.

That was probably the starkest realisation for me listening to former US president Barack Obama's seminal Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg on Tuesday: just how low the level of our public discourse has sunk; so that thousands of people are tragically withdrawing from the debate rather than risking being insulated and denigrated.

Thousands of voices – young and old – are being silenced by the risk of being publicly shamed.  

Why was it necessary for Obama to come here to remind us that all human beings, irrespective of your background or heritage, are equal?

Why was it necessary for a foreigner to come and remind us of the values Mandela lived and died for: that every voice has the right to be heard and that we should embrace our diversity of views and not advocate one worldview that conforms to popular identity politics of a zeitgeist?

Why did we need Obama to come and remind the wealthiest of our people – most of them still white – that we cannot be truly free unless the inequality gap that exists narrows substantially and economic freedom and dignity are restored to millions of black people who were dispossessed of their wealth by consecutive colonial forces?

Also read: 'On Madiba's 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads' - Obama's full speech

On this Mandela Day, it would be utterly irresponsible of us not to heed Obama's call and consider the alternative to a democracy based on human rights and upholding the Constitution.

In such a society, nationalist, racial politics and greed are the order of the day. If those who oppose you look, talk or sound differently, you shut them down based on their identity.

If you are an obstacle to an individual, political party or company to achieve maximum power or profit, you will be demolished – literally.

In such a society, human rights, dignity and the Constitution are subservient to the needs and the might of a powerful elite who are only interested in enriching themselves.

We've been there – as recent as 24 years ago.

The apartheid regime was inherently racist and corrupt and governed only to benefit a minority group who had the same skin colour. What began as a noble idea to uplift illiterate and poor Afrikaners from years of oppression by the British quickly turned into a perverse, nationalist project in which secret societies and unlawful behaviour by business and politics flourished.

Apartheid represented the highest form of state capture.

We were well on our way back to those dark days under the corrupt Jacob Zuma regime, that governed to enrich and protect one family, their friends and keepers in government and the ANC.

It took one brave whistle-blower to expose the extent to which our democracy was eroded and assaulted for a decade to protect one strongman and his elite. When the heat became too much, the Zuptas contracted Bell Pottinger to sow racial division in South Africa and divert the attention away from their own nefarious activities to the injustices of the past.

It was suddenly okay to shut down and denigrate journalists, opinionmakers and citizens who had honestly-held views purely because they were white.

Black journalists and thought leaders who wrote critically about the Zuptas were labelled sell-outs and had their faces photoshopped onto dogs to undermine their credibility.

Were it not for all the brave and principled journalists, activists and jurists who upheld the Constitution and fought for democracy during these dark times, we would have been much further down the slippery slope to that dire alternative Obama had to warn us against.

Now Zuma is gone (officially, at least) and we are still left with the legacies of the past and the perils of the present: land expropriation, rampant crime and corruption, poverty, a skewed economy and racism.

These are not only problems the government or ANC or President Cyril Ramaphosa has to find innovative solutions to. All voices should be heard and be given an equal opportunity to plot our path ahead.

Ramaphosa has on numerous occasions expressed himself as a democrat who truly believes South Africa belongs to all who live in it, but even he must be careful not to be lured away from upholding the values of the Constitution for short-term political gains.

Also read: 10 quotes from Obama's Mandela lecture

On this Mandela Day, with Obama's words still ringing loudly in our ears, each of us should take a hard look in the mirror and decide whether you are a democrat or not.

Wearing a Mandela t-shirt once a year is not enough. The business of democracy is "messy", in Obama's words, but the alternative is dire.

You cannot be a democrat and live a comfortable life, ignorant about the rampant inequality and poverty you see on your daily drive to work. Democracy is messy; get your hands dirty in finding solutions to create a more equal society.

You cannot be a democrat and harbour racist views against people who look different than you. Democracy is messy; interrogate your own prejudices and challenge yourself in the way you interact with people in your public and private life.

You cannot be a democrat and shut down the views of minorities or anyone else just because they don't agree with you. Democracy is messy; embrace the conflicting views of others and learn from them, as Madiba did.

The future Mandela dreamt of and Obama spoke about will not sustain and safeguard itself. It will require democrats to stand up, speak out and act in defence of our hard-won freedoms.

It will be uncomfortable; it will be messy, but ultimately it is the only option if we are really serious about wanting democracy to prosper.

- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24. Follow him on Twitter @adriaanbasson

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