Change to Come?

2013-12-24 12:46

Despite the passing of Nelson Mandela public scrutiny of Jacob Zuma’s government – and the state of the ANC generally – has not quietened down. If Mr Zuma and his colleagues thought ordinary South Africans would be too busy grieving for Tata to notice, or be critical, they have been horribly mistaken.

No matter how frail he was, Tata represented the ideals of the Rainbow Nation. Both to the ANC, and South Africa generally, with each breath he took we were reminded of how far we had come.

But, like with the ailing family relative whom we take for granted because, despite what the doctors said, they always seemed to be there, so too were South Africans lulled into a false sense of security the longer Tata lived.

The longer he lived, the longer we could believe that the ANC of today could become the ANC of yesteryear. And because there was that possibility, we largely forgave the indiscretions of today. You don’t criticise yourself too harshly for not visiting because, as has always been the case, you could rectify the situation and visit tomorrow.

But, like when that family member does die, the shock of Tata’s passing forced us to face the reality of what South Africa under the ANC has become.

In the immediate aftermath of death, survivor’s guilt is not necessarily its strongest – but it does often manifest itself in its most raw form. In the face of death, it is natural to question one’s own life and legacy. And in that process, one that stems from considering the life and legacy of the departed, we build a relationship between what we have done and what we should have done.

For South Africans living through a Zuma Presidency, this could not be truer.

The death of Nelson Mandela has, if anything, brought into even sharper contrast the failings of this administration to uphold the ideals championed by Tata’s historic Presidency. The fact that Tata is no longer alive seems to have made us better appreciate the kind of society that was envisaged in 1994. And when that ideal is held up against this government, it is no doubt that so many find it wanting. The present is being held accountable to the past for the sake of the future.

But beyond that grand narrative, South Africans generally seem to be holding themselves accountable too. In the absence of the physical presence of man who gave so many part of their identity and sense of self, as we search to either replace his physical embodiment of those ideals or reconcile ourselves with them despite our loss, we are apportioning ourselves some of the blame for what has gone wrong. And in doing so we are rediscovering our democratic selves.

President Zuma is now under fire not only from the opposition but from many within his camp and sympathetic supporters outside of it too. While I do not think that the President is just about to go anywhere – not unless he wants to – I do think that since Tata’s death we have grown more acutely aware of our sense of self; of the state of the nation; and, of what needs to change.

The near unanimity with which the Inter-Ministerial Report on Nkandla was derided as being a whitewash; the excitement with which NUMSA’s opportunistic severing of ties with the ANC was met; and the rubbishing of the SACP’s ‘support’ of the ANC shows that something is happening in South Africa. It may not be the epochal change that many hope for, but it is the kind of change that, if sustained, can bring about the greater change we hope to see in South Africa.

Our history is a good example. In 1912, the ANC in its then form thought that the struggle should be to secure better rights under an oppressive colonial regime. As the elite leadership continued in that vein, many started to realise the failings of that thinking and actively sought to change the opinions of their colleagues. While the change only really took effect in 1943 and became properly operationalised as a non-negotiable fight for equality in the 1950s, the fact that the change started small but ended big (as it did in 1994) cannot be underestimated.

Maybe I am being unduly enthusiastic and the reality is that South Africans will either ignore or not care enough to do anything about this rotten state in which we find ourselves. But when a President is booed on a global stage, the same President who used to be met with deafening crescendos of support, it gives me hope that slowly but surely, change is coming.

As Isiah Berlin wrote in Russian Thinkers, quoting Herzen, ‘‘One must open men’s eyes, not tear them out.’’

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