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25 October 2014 22:55 (South Africa)
Life, etc

A view from abroad: Mandela, Zuma and what South African multiculturalism means for Europe

  • Marianne Thamm
  • Life, etc
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Last week influential Dutch author and essayist, Bass Heijne, accompanied a group of students from that country on a pre-election visit to South Africa. In a column that appeared in the daily NRC Handelsblad on Sunday, Heijne concludes that while South Africa is an extreme country, there are echoes of contemporary European politics locally including “corruption, political lies, rabble rousing, radicalism, group madness, hatred of critics and whistleblowers, persistent ethnic divisions and resentment”. By MARIANNE THAMM.

While South Africa will be going to the polls next week with a predicted landslide victory for the centre left ANC, analysts in Europe are forecasting that right wing groupings in the EU could capture at least 20 percent of seats in European parliamentary elections that are due to take place from 22 – 25 May.

In November last year, in what the Guardian described as “a chilling echo of the 1930s”, the launch of a pan European alliance of far-right wing populist parties, led by Marine le Pen’s French National Front and Geert Wilder’s Dutch Freedom party, posed “the most serious threat” to the European project initiated after the Second World War.

Wilders and Le Pen have vowed to conquer “the monster in Brussels” and have used increasingly inflammatory rhetoric to promote the ideal of “nation states” over that of European unity. Right wing parties in Belgium, Norway, Italy, Austria, Germany, Norway and Greece have been making inroads since the 1990s and have seen increased support, many say, since the global economic collapse of 2008 and which has lead to “the closing of the European mind”.

Ian Traynor, writing in the Guardian, explains that “The aim of the electoral alliance appears to be to form a Trojan horse in Brussels and Strasbourg: a large parliamentary caucus dedicated to wrecking the very institution that the far-right has entered.”

While the general consensus in Europe is that the global recession and austerity has been responsible for a hardening of attitudes, Matthew Goodwin, Associate Professor of Politics at Nottingham University and an authority on the far right, has suggested that it is not economics that is driving the movement but rather concerns over national culture, identity and a way of life which matters more than material fears.

It is against this backdrop that a group of Dutch students, accompanied by author, essayist and columnist, Bass Heijne, visited South Africa last week on a pre-election research visit. For many in the left in Europe, South Africa, our Constitution and our fledgling democracy represents and embodies the noble ideals of tolerance, justice and forgiveness as well as that illusive notion of multiculturalism.

To many, South Africa, with our violent and fractured past, is evidence that it is possible to be united in diversity, to be Mandela’s “one country, many nations”. If we could do it, then so could everyone else, went the mantra.

Writing the influential NRC Handelsblad, Heijne begins his column with the words “a nightmare”.

“A nightmare is how the Reverend Frank Chikane [former director general in the Mbeki presidency] described the current situation in South Africa to a group of young Dutch people visiting his country in the run up to the elections on 7 May.”

And Chikane, who was “hunted down, tortured and imprisoned” during Apartheid, should know what a nightmare is, Heijne opines. But after 20 years of ANC rule and democracy “the dream is gone” and the booing of “the corrupt current president, Jacob Zuma” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was evidence of this.

“The world watched, puzzled. Our thoughts were with Mandela, his miraculous goodness, his underlying message of tolerance, justice and forgiveness, and who turned his country into an example for the world”.

South Africa, with its state violence, racism, nationalism and its gruesome past, its poverty and its diversity had made “the impossible seem possible”, writes Heijne. And while the Netherlands too had long been held as a beacon of tolerance, this had diminished in recent years.

“But has it failed? Has it become a nightmare?” the author asks of South Africa.

“I travelled with a group of young Dutch students and everywhere you witness the spirit of Mandela collide with that of Zuma. The ANC speaks the official language of power – an endless stream of rhetoric about what has been achieved in 20 years and how poor South Africans will realise how good the party has been to them. Not a word about corruption, failing education, endemic sexual violence and crime.”

Heijne describes a visit to the Ministry of Information in Pretoria as “an Orwellian nightmare.”

“Endless newspeak about the blessings of the government, special, attractively designed brochures about the miraculous progress in all areas. Everything is growing and blossoming with government moving slowly to a state of perfection”.

But behind the scenes, he continues, “people complain about the arrogance of his own party, the degeneration of Zuma and his cronies and how everything that is not going well is blamed on the legacy of Apartheid.”

“It would be comical if it were not so depressing,” writes Heijne.

But away from the corridors of power the Dutchman finds that “the spirit of Mandela” is still very much alive.

“The press is free and vital, discussions outside and away from tempered ANC cadres are remarkably frank and self-critical. Where the government has failed, local initiatives have arisen. The battle is being fought with amazing energy and realism. The dream will not just be surrendered.”

The country, he concludes, for him is confusing and alternates between the dream and the nightmare.

“You need only open a newspaper, turn on the television or look in the mirror to realise Zuma's world is closer to our reality than that of Mandela’s. Corruption, political lies, rabble rousing, radicalism, racism, group madness, the vilification of critics and whistleblowers and persistent ethnic divisions and resentment - and while South Africa is an extreme country - there is nothing here that is not recognisable.”

The author recounts an interview with Allister Sparks at Liliesleaf Farm, where the veteran journalist told our Dutch visitors that South Africa remained an example and could still teach people in the world who did not want to live with each other how to do so.

While the death of Apartheid was welcomed everywhere, long before Mandela’s death, the “unreal dream of multiculturalism” in Europe had already imploded to be replaced with “skepticism and cynicism”, writes Heijne.

“At least in South Africa they’re still working on it [multiculturalism] with all the disillusionment that goes with it, and no longer blindly idealistic. Because there is simply no other way. This is not the optimism of the rainbow dream of people who – despite their differences – embrace each other sobbing. It is the humanism of Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” DM

Photo: Bass Heijne (Pic Wikipedia)

  • Marianne Thamm
  • Life, etc


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