Apart from a few years of brief, but shallow respite here and there in the mid 2000s, the South African political clock periodically comes to rest at five minutes to midnight. The clock started officially running in 1652 when a detachment of Dutch traders waded ashore in Cape Town, and the timepiece has since then sporadically sent the country’s citizens scrambling for guns or suitcases.
Even when the clock’s cogs and wheels had been repaired and re-oiled, in preparation for the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, the clock almost ground to a halt as bombs detonated across the country that year. And yet here we still are. Some would say up shit creek without a paddle, while a fair sprinkling counter that we are not quite there yet, still clinging desperately to that oar as the waters rise.
In the election year of 2014, bookshelves were lined with a selection of political downers including academic Xolela Mangcu’s The Arrogance of Power – South Africa’s Leadership Meltdown, Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo’s The Fall of the ANC – What Next?, former truth commissioner, Alex Boraine’s, What’s Gone Wrong? On the brink of a failed state, ANC veteran, Ben Turok’s memoir With My Head Above the parapet: An Insider Account of the ANC, and Ray Hartley’s Ragged Glory – The Rainbow Nation in Black and White.
Political books tend to come emblazoned with dramatic cover shoutouts like “bracingly critical”, or “spirited and challenging”, or “devastating” – in the case of editor, columnist, media consultant and political analyst, Justice Malala’s, latest book, We have now begun our descent – How to stop South Africa losing its way (Jonathan Ball)
Malala’s book is fresh off the presses, just in time for the Christmas stocking, along with those of political agent provocateur, Eusebius McKaiser’s, Run Racist Run (Bookstorm), and City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee’s, What if there were no whites in South Africa? (Pan Macmillan). Of course, RW Johnson’s now best-selling How Long Can South Africa Survive? – the looming crisis, made it out of the gates early in May this year, predicting (in a nutshell) that South Africa, bankrupted by a leaderless class of political opportunists, would be requiring an International Monetary Fund bailout in about two years.
All of these are bound to counter the relentless forced cheer of the holiday season, and will bring those grinches among us further comfort in our misery. The point is, these are turbulent and interesting times, and in order to grasp these, we need the country’s writers to excavate and lay bare various contemporary currents.
Justice Malala’s views on the current leadership of the ANC, and how it governs, are no secret. He has voiced his displeasure and anger in his regular columns for The Times, as well as on his e-TV talk show, “The Justice Factor”. And while a column or a TV show offer truncated platforms for Malala’s voice, his book, divided into two parts – “The Way We Are Now” and “The Road Ahead” – concentrates that voice and vision, as he applies it to various aspects of our depressing political present.
Malala makes no excuse for the fact that this is a very personal book. Flip it over and the first words in red type that strike the reader are “I am angry. I am furious.” And it is this anger and fury which fuels and carries Malala’s narrative, as it crashes mostly through the debris of ANC misrule under its current leader, Jacob Zuma.
Readers who are engaged in the day to day roller-coaster that is South African politics, will be aware of the many issues that do not escape Malala’s withering gaze and analysis; the wasteful expenditure, the shutting down of a critical media space, the corruption, the lies, the patronage politics, the violation of the law, the Guptas, Nkandla, attacks on the Public Protector, declining electoral support, the capture of the NPA, the Hawks, and the rallying of appointees to the President’s defence at the expense of the citizenry.
What does offer the reader a unique insight, is Malala’s own wrestling with how a party he once supported and loved, as did the rest of his family, would lead us to “this relentless decline, the flirtation with a leap over the cliff”.
Malala is a constitutionalist, an idealist who begins his analysis with a 1997 quote by Cyril Ramaphosa “one of the men now sitting in the National Assembly” at the adoption of the Constitution.
“Today marks the legal transition to a Constitution that represents the will of the overwhelming majority of the people of this country. It’s one law for one nation, a document that commits not only the government but every single one of us to the values that have been disregarded in the past – to human rights, fair, decent treatment for all, to democracy and government that is accountable to the people, to tolerance of our differences and appreciation of our common humanity.”
Malala writes that after the violent removal of the Economic Freedom Fighters from Parliament during President Zuma’s State of the National Address in February this year, we are “the furthest we have ever been from that beautiful statement. Accountability, openness, democracy – all lay in tatters. South Africa’s democracy was being compromised in defence of one man: a leader around whom swirled allegations of corruption, lack of values, lethargy and failure to govern properly.”
It was this moment, he says, that he understood “South Africa had begun its descent”, a trajectory into “anarchy and decrepitude” he had earlier had told a group of colleagues, over lunch in Lagos, would never happen in South Africa.
His is a book filled with questions; “What has happened to the culture of debate and contestation that once permeated the movement?”, “What happened to the pride that made this organisation stand up and expel people who muddied its name?”, “Where is the African National Congress of my dreams, my father’s dreams of my brother and sister’s dreams?”
And while Malala answers most of these, he saves his ire for Jacob Zuma who has become, he says, a problem and a liability for the ruling party, a president who has remained in power “because he has sidelined potential challengers, and the leadership that now constitutes the party’s national executive, is largely made up of sycophants, or those who are prepared to sugar coat reality for him.”
But no matter how dire the situation might be for the ruling party at present, Malala, like many ANC insiders who have kept their heads down, believes the party has the capacity to “self-correct” and that while it has faced challenges before “we can do it again”. But only with a leadership that is confident and accountable. And time is running out.
“Yet even as we consider that the ANC has come to this, we must not be fooled into thinking that the narrative will be a straight line of decline, and inevitable destruction over the next decade. The ANC has faced some serious challenges in the past, and has not just survived, it has emerged from some of its trials and tribulations even stronger,” he writes.
He does, however, posit alternatives that do not bode well; that the party might be seized by populists who promise much, but deliver nothing as the country’s coffers run dry. Of the country’s opposition parties Malala writes there has never been a better moment for these to thrive, and that Julius Malema’s EFF is a force to be reckoned with. The party, he says “sets the agenda in the chamber, and has become a relentless, implacable thorn in the side of the ANC, where many of its MPs cut their political teeth”
While Malema, he reckons, has “mellowed”, Malala writes that he has always found him “extremely shady”. Democratic Alliance (DA) leader, Mmusi Maimane, he suggests, would have to become “more revolutionary”, and the party needed to transform into one of “belonging” and “empathy” in order to attract more black voters. Meanwhile, the DA should continue its role of being tough on exposing corruption, and Maimane should not “take his foot off the pedal”.
The real opposition, however, will be found in the tripartite alliance, who have, says Malala, been “living a lie for the past two decades.”
“If any of the three parties were true to themselves, they would acknowledge that their relationship – save for their shared history of struggle against apartheid – is one huge contradiction.”
Malala has high praise for Trevor Manuel’s National Development Plan (NDP), which he believes, among other things, will offer a parachute, if implemented by a bold and confident leader, beholden to a citizenry who will no longer vote for history but for delivery.
“Populists, looters, securocrats, revisionists and all sorts of other miscreants have gleefully entered the space and are at play. South Africa, casting about for leadership, finds itself surrounded by mere noise and no substance. The cacophony rises while the real issues and challenges of our time – the tearing of our social fabric, the decline of our economy, the despair of the unemployed, the poor teaching in our schools – increase by the day.”
Because of the spirited anger driving Malala’s text, there is much repetition, as if he feverishly needs us to see what he is seeing, and that it is urgent. The most engaging and touching aspects of the book – which brings respite from the political analysis – is Malala’s occasional revelation of his personal life, his early political awakening, the tragic death of his older brother, the hardships of his youth and education in Hammanskraal, his university days, and his rise as a young writer and editor. This small glimpse into the life of a young South African who is passionate about his country and its future, is what ultimately brings a gentle heart to the searing analysis of this book.
“If the South African dream withers and dies it will be because we have stepped away from the public square.”
Malala ends the book calling on South Africans to show the same courage we have had in the past in making sure that the clock does not strike midnight:
“We cannot afford to fritter our chances away. It is time to act”.
Malala penned this book before the student uprisings around the country last month. It is these as well as the ongoing protests at government’s lack of delivery and corruption, that signal that for a new generation, the waiting is over. DM
"Charms strike the sight but merit wins the soul." ~ Alexander Pope