OPINION | Chrispin Phiri: South Africa is a jewel. Let's find a way to make it our treasure again

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We have many challenges, but also much to celebrate, writes the author. (Getty)
We have many challenges, but also much to celebrate, writes the author. (Getty)

The question that should perhaps be the most focal point of our nation at any given point is how we overcome our prevailing dichotomies, writes Chrispin Phiri.

Taking a flight into Cape Town International Airport is one of the starkest reminders that South Africa is one country inhabited by two peoples – the haves and the have-nots. 

The blight of inequality cannot be more jarring than flying over the spectacular vistas of False Bay, to then be confronted with the desolation of Nyanga, Gugulethu and the Cape Flats as the aircraft makes its approach.

We have many other wounds.

The repugnant smell of crime and violence dominates the lay of the land, as does the stench of corruption and uninspiring bureaucratic governance.

Betrayed aspirations 

The instability of the continent and the region has brought with it wave upon wave of migrants to Mzansi, Africa - all in pursuit of a better life for all. It is little help that our borders have nameless and faceless officials who have long convinced themselves that our sovereignty is for sale.

Resurgent acts of racism remind us how many of apartheid's beneficiaries yearn for the past. For some, blackness is incapable of any form of excellence.

The energy crisis has emboldened the naysayers, especially those who may not have accumulated enough exploitative wealth to simply emigrate. 

READ | JP Landman: The country is undeniably better off than it was five years ago

At the same time, the situation we find ourselves in is a painful reminder that some have betrayed the aspirations of the liberation movement to its almost irretrievable detriment. 

Indeed, our nation has its fair share of problems, but we are not alone. From Ukraine to Palestine, from Cuba to Western Sahara, the injustices of the world are not at all minuscule. No truer words were sung by Bob Marely in "So much trouble in the world".

But is that all there is to South Africa and to Africa, and are we to surrender to defeatism simply? 

This came up in a conversation I had recently with a prominent newspaperman (not the self-ascribed lowly one) when I asked him why the papers of his publication were dominated by painful and sad stories.

How do we respond?

In this year's State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a very poignant point that we are not defined by our challenges. 

Truth be told, we should not be. The definitive moment of the nation is how we respond to these challenges.  

Our challenges are not all there is to us.

South Africa is a great jewel.

South Africa is also the birthplace of amapiano, a music genre that has captivated many beyond our borders, from Lagos to New York. According to Spotify data, amapiano has amassed over 920 million global all-time streams... Spotify also noted that the streams on the platform would hit 1 billion in July 2022.

We see South Africa in Thebe Magugu, a product of Galeshewe, a global superstar in the fashion world, who has even garnered a rare endorsement by the legendary Vogue editor, Anna Wintour.

In Thuso Mbedu, we see Hollywood marvelling and recognising a talent who was born and bred on the streets of Pelham.

Black Coffee and Shimza, to name but a few, are setting the global music scene ablaze and treating all the continents to the sounds of the most southern tip of Africa.

Pretty Yende, from the small town of Piet Retief (officially eMkhondo), has shattered stereotypes about opera music singers, and black people all around the world see themselves in her. At the upcoming coronation of King Charles II, it will be her angelic voice that will be heard in the chambers of Westminster Abbey. 

There are many more examples of South African excellence.

Seeking answers

I imagine that some may read this in agreement, while others may argue that those mentioned have excelled, despite the democratic government.

This is disingenuous. It was democracy, and it has been successive democratic administrations that have made it possible for black children to wake up and to be who they want to be.  

These citizens are not by any means the exception, but they are certainly exceptional. South Africa does not want for talent, and I believe nor are we found wanting when it comes to solutions to our problems. 

The question that should perhaps be the most focal point of our nation at any given point is how we overcome our prevailing dichotomies.

READ | Songezo Zibi:  These dark times are the right moment to build a better future

How is it that we are a people with largeness of spirit - but, at the same time, we are one of most violent countries in the world?

How is it that our values are defined by ubuntu, but our governance echoes the inhumanity of an oppressive society?

How is it that we have artists that can reimagine and redefine the arts, but we are unable to reimagine our townships and towns.  

How is it that we have embodiment of a transformed nation in the world champions, led by Siya Kolisi, and yet the national question in our everyday lives eludes us.

I, for one, do not have all the answers.  

Perhaps we have relegated democracy, as a concept, to the realm of myth, and that its implementation is reserved exclusively for whichever party triumphs in elections.  

Indeed the party that wins an election has a duty to advance the collective aspirations of all of society.

At the same time, the Freedom Charter, the forerunner to our Constitution, defines the role of citizens. 

The People Shall Govern, it declares. This is not a rhetorical statement. It is an affirmation of our agency. Yes, the vote is a critical component of democracy, but democracy is not limited to the ballot box. Nor is governing only about securing the vote. 

Nor is our agency confined to exercising our right to vote.   

Up to us to make SA work

At the heart of democracy is the ability to self-govern. Not at a macro level only, but at a micro level. This comes down to protecting our communities, organisations and companies from the worst excesses of those who have no qualms about enriching themselves at the expense of society.

While violent marches may have been the most viable way to assert our agency and reclaim our humanity in the past, we now live in a society where the sanctity of our communities is equally defined by our own actions.

Reclaiming our agency is also about disabusing ourselves of the notion that removing one party and replacing it with another will miraculously change the status quo.  

As much as it is necessary for us to reflect on the problems that continue to plague us, we should at the same time be mindful of those exponents of our democracy that have made ours a country of which we can be immensely proud.

It is up to us to harness our collective ingenuity, creativity and our very best reconstructive efforts to make South Africa a nation in which the descendants of our colonisers affirm the humanity of the descendants of those who were colonised.  

This is what makes South Africa. This makes South Africa the great jewel of the world.

- Chrispin Phiri is an ANC activist and spokesperson for the justice minister. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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