Noisy nation

After 20 years of democracy, South Africans are not a people who shy away from voicing their discontent, writes John Carlin.

A South African lawyer was in New York in the late 1980s to deliver a paper on apartheid’s crimes.

Before his turn came, he heard speakers from Latin America tell their tales of horror and realised, with a sinking feeling, that he could not compete.

The man from Argentina spoke about the torture and disappearance of 15 000 people, most of them grabbed from their homes.

The one from El Salvador spoke about the 30 000 killed by the state death squads at the rate of 1 000 a month.

Worst of all, the one from Guatemala shared similarly prolific rates of assassination, plus army units that routinely burnt entire villages to the ground.

Yes, in South Africa you had death squads killings, but not on an industrial scale.

Yes, when I arrived in South Africa in 1989 you had some 30 000 activists detained without charge.

But as I pointed out to the lawyer, in El Salvador those 30?000 would have been dead.

As for Nelson Mandela, the notion that his equivalent in Guatemala would have been tried in court and then spared the hangman’s noose was, in a grim sort of way, laughable.

I knew about these things. I had spent from 1979 to 1989 in South and Central America.

By contrast, South Africa’s political climate struck me as mild; the space for political expression, relatively free.

From the day I arrived in South Africa, I never came across a black person afraid to express his or her view.

I am not being frivolous about the suffering black South Africans endured under apartheid.

It was, as Mandela once said, “a moral genocide”, an attempt to systematically exterminate an entire people’s self-respect.

It was also a brazen affirmative action programme for white people, the inevitable downside of which was that those born with darker skins were condemned to lives deprived of economic opportunity.

It was uniquely evil. Well, almost.

In Guatemala, the 75% of the population who were of Mayan origin, were treated with at least equal contempt by the rich and powerful, who then dispatched battalions of Eugene de Kocks to terrorise them into submission.

Getting an indigenous Guatemalan to tell you the time of day, let alone what they thought of the government, was impossible.

Guatemala was a silent country. South Africa, for all the racial similarities, was a noisy one. And it still is, only much more so today.

Give thanks, South Africans, for that. Silent countries are the ones where the people are scared of saying what they think. Noisy countries are the ones where democracy thrives.

South Africa has a culture of political noise, a tradition that was born during the apartheid days and lives on today – at vuvuzela volumes greater than ever before.

If the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, was far more benign than just about any other equivalent armed group during the Cold War, it was perhaps in part because unusual quantities of the milk of human kindness flowed through the veins of the likes of Oliver Tambo.

But it was also because every action provokes a like reaction and the degree of actual physical repression unleashed by the apartheid state did not warrant an al- Qaeda-type response.

The likes of the United Democratic Front and Cosatu had space to express their political views.

The government did seek to stop them with states of emergency and so on, but the more they tried, the noisier the masses became.

Today, noisewise, things are better than ever.

The amount of screaming, shouting and booing at the powers that be, the furious debates between political parties and old and new trade unions, the daily revelations in the press, the hyperventilating opinion columns: it is all music to the ears, a sign of political health – just as a new born baby’s screaming is a sign of physical health.

Which is not to say that South Africa’s democracy is infantile, but it is young.

At 20 years old, it has barely emerged from adolescence and is still seeking its identity, finding its bearings in the world.

The parents, by which I mean (stretching the metaphor a bit) successive ANC governments, are not a model of maturity themselves, but they have had the wisdom and moral coherence not to do as governments have done in other countries that arrived at democracy at roughly the same time, such as Russia.

They have not locked up political opponents or murdered overinquisitive members of the press.

The ANC is wise enough to know that if you turn to repression, you force your enemies to go underground and resort to the gun as the instrument of political persuasion.

Look at Julius Malema. Just the thought of him turns many white South Africans?–?and a few black?ones – hysterical, but be grateful he is making his noise within the electoral terrain, not planting bombs.

The same goes for the no less shrill, if less numerically relevant, Afrikaner far right.

The comforting thing is that even if a Putinist sector in the ANC was to try to give its impulses free rein and curtail freedom of expression, the public would not stand for it.

It would fight back – with still more noise.

That’s what South Africans do and – even when legal bans were imposed – always have done. South Africans have come to regard it as their God-given right to argue and protest, and to do so very loudly.

It’s as much a part of the national identity as burning dead animals and eating them. Maybe more.

Maybe it is the defining national characteristic.

And the reason South Africa remains a roaring democracy?–?no matter the corruption and incompetence of many of its governing members?–?and why the country has an in-built, almost genetic, mechanism that spurs it instinctively to rise up against government abuse and proclaim the right to protest.

It is neither the ANC nor any other political party that, in the final analysis, guards democracy in South Africa. It is the people.

The most visible weapon at their disposal is a free press. It has come under attack from the country’s government.

More attacks may follow in the coming years if the same government finds its hold on power slipping.

Don’t rule out future attempts to make journalists offers they cannot refuse?–?giving them a choice between taking a bribe or facing nasty consequences.

I saw plenty of that in Latin America.

Vigilance is required, the sort of vigilance that has got chiefs of police fired or jailed, that exposed scandals like Nkandla, that obliged the nation’s former vice-president to face charges in court.

Some of those who lament the way South Africa has gone since the Mandela presidency cite the legal cases brought against Jacob Zuma for raping and stealing as examples of political decay.

But there is another way of looking at this. Would a senior member of the government in Russia ever

be exposed to such discomfort? How often does something like this happen, for that matter, in the democracies of western Europe?

Zuma’s judicial embarrassments are more a sign of democratic sturdiness than of debility.

And it is also a sign that the ANC is not as bad as self-obsessed South Africans?–?apparently lacking terms of comparison with other countries at similar stages of development?–?think it is.

Don’t forget that it was rebellious stirrings in the party that got Thabo Mbeki kicked out when the suspicion arose that he wanted to do a Robert Mugabe and eternise his hold on power.

That may or may not have been a good decision for the country in retrospect, but the principle was a good one.

The same principle that led a large crowd at the FNB Stadium to ignore official calls to keep quiet during Mandela’s memorial service and boo Zuma?–?and Malema’s little lot with the red berets?–?with equal stridency.

The spirit of no compromise has survived apartheid. It has endured, has grown ever louder.

It is the engine of South African democracy and a large reason 20 years on, there remains more in this country to admire than despise.

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