Trends, change and recovery: SA beyond Covid-19 is an attempt at sourcing a range of theories.
Morning clouds. Mild.
Dr Leon Wessels. (Loanna Hoffmann)
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We are now much more certain of the past than we are of the
future, says Leon
The coronavirus has emphasised old apartheid divides, like spatial
planning, and has put up new boundaries between people. The virus "has
forcefully reminded us that we have not overcome the vestiges of our past".
At midnight on 26 April 1994,
my son, Willem, our friends, Eddie Meiring and Renier Terblanche, and I stood
in Johannesburg among thousands of people. There was a festive mood. We enjoyed
the chit-chat and being part of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. I pitied the
ones who were armed to the teeth and anxiously following the events on their TV
While we were singing Die
Stem and Nkosi
Sikelel’ iAfrika, we saw the new flag being hoisted and the old
flag lowered. This was a poignant moment. Never to be forgotten.
On Election Day, 27 April 1994, I visited the old Krugersdorp
polling stations as I had done during the elections in the years gone by.
Voters were standing in long lines but the sting of the familiar battles with
the Conservative party and their candidate, Clive Derby-Lewis, in 1987 and 1989
was absent. The National Party faithful were there as always helping voters to
cast their votes. Their continued loyalty humbled me.
Apocalyptic predictions of conflict and violence during the
elections were never realised and long lines of peaceful voters from all
communities and groupings in the country patiently waiting to cast their votes
became the iconic image of the new South Africa that was flashed around the
world by the hundreds of journalists and camera crews that descended upon the
country to cover this event.
The turnout was so great that the voting period was extended to
three days. On the third day, the now bored press corps was hastily reassigned
to the genocide in Rwanda.
On the spur of the moment I decided to vote in Munsieville. I did
not want to make a political statement - I was just curious and wanted a new
experience. I had no desire to cast my vote at any of the old polling stations.
It would be a repetition of previous encounters without the excitement.
What a contrast! In 1986, Winnie Mandela trumpeted in Munsieville:
"Together, hand in hand with our matches and our necklaces, we shall
liberate this country." Her gathering was rowdy and full of fight; Nelson
Mandela's democratic Munsieville in 1994 exemplified the new era. The people of
Munsieville were peaceful and content.
One can only guess what would have happened had I made an
uninvited appearance at the venue during Winnie's feisty speech eight years
earlier. That gathering was so fired up anything could have happened.
The old constituent demarcations now belonged to the past. Nobody
questioned my presence. Standing in the ballot station and casting my vote was
a confirmation of the new reality - there were no apartheid boundaries.
On 8 May 2019, after casting my vote in the election of that year
at one of the old voting stations in my neighbourhood, I decided to visit the
voting station in Munsieville. There was no sting like 1987 and 1989 elections or
the excitement of the 1994 elections.
Does this docile atmosphere signify a settled democracy? A
democracy is much more than organising a peaceful election every five years. Democracy
is a work in progress - you never arrive - and an active citizenry must hold
the elected officials accountable between elections.
Covid-19 has changed all of this - a new reality (again): how does
Parliament hold the executive accountable if they don't meet? How does the
citizenry hold their elected representatives accountable if they can't meet or
march in large numbers? How can I be without doing what I enjoy most: being
near people, looking people in the eye, trying to understand their hopes and
New boundaries are drawn. We are afraid of each other - it has
nothing to do with skin pigmentation or old apartheid prejudices. Keeping
social distance has become much more than being polite. It is now about fear:
will I be infected? It has also accentuated the old divides in new guises: the
affluent is still affluent, able to stockpile (again) as if there is no
tomorrow; the vulnerable in our midst had hoped for a kinder future - a more
caring society. The coronavirus has confined them to their limited spaces - not
through draconian security legislation or apartheid policies but by regulations
to fight this deadly virus.
The coronaviris has forcefully reminded us that we have not
overcome the vestiges of our past: spatial demarcations, lack of
infrastructure, poor health services, and access to modern technology still out
of reach for many.
In April 1994, the future was clear. The past was foggy. We
understood what had to be done. In May 2019, we realised we had not delivered
on the election promises of the 1994 election campaign and the promises of the
elections that followed.
The coronavirus provides us with a new beginning. The future isn't
what it used to be. Life beyond the coronavirus can't be more of the same. The
past is now clear; the future is foggy.
** Leon Wessels, an advocate of the High Court, was a member of
the last apartheid Cabinet, served as Cyril Ramaphosa's deputy in the
Constituent Assembly, was a human rights commissioner for a decade before moving
to academia. His latest book, Encountering Apartheid's Ghosts - From Krugersdorp to Constitution Hillis now
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