South Africa


South Africa, a country in a need of healing

South Africa, a country in a need of healing
Deputy President Ramaphosa meeting with Mauritian President Ameenah Gurib Fakim). Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the South Africa Business Dinner hosted by Brand South Africa where he spoke on the conference theme "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World". 24/01/2018, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

The aftermath of the funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has seen much discussion about a documentary about her life, and a flurry of facts and corrections about what happened while she was still alive. Perhaps lost in the noise were President Cyril Ramaphosa’s thoughts about the wounds that our nation is feeling, and our need for national healing.

It may sound trite, or almost like something from the 1990s, but the need for healing is incredibly important. And yet, it is not necessarily a discussion that has made it to the national conversation. Crucial to this is the kind of leadership that our society is choosing, and where those choices might take us.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech on Saturday contained this message:

We must also recognise our own wounds, we must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future. This may explain why we are so easily prone to anger and to violence… Her own wounds made her real and easy to relate to. It’s only when you experience real pain yourself that you can recognise it in others and offer comfort and healing. We have seen and touched those wounds, it is now time to heal the wounds that we have seen, the wounds that were inflicted on all of us, on Mama Winnie in the past.”

It was clear that Ramaphosa was looking at starting a national dialogue, his attempt at lessening what you could call call the pain of the South African daily reality.

Certain aspects of it are obvious from the outside. First, the pain of the past will not be dealt with as long as we have the kind of racialised inequality that we have now; people will not feel whole as long as those who look different to them and who benefited from an unjust system are treated better than they are. Second, leadership really matters in this, and it could be argued that we feel as we do precisely or partly because of the kind of leadership we have had since 2009, or even since 1999, as many would argue.

Speaking during a debate on this subject on SAfm this week (Stephen, it’s truly hard to see why you keep mentioning that radio station – Ed), the executive director of the Centre of the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Nomfundo Mogapi, made a key point about leadership. She said that there are two kinds of leaders, essentially – those who are broken, and those who are healed.

As Mogapi put it, there are those who “have the ability to speak to our pain, but by the time they are done, because they have facilitated their own pain, we feel more hopeful, we feel more united, we want to deal with our issues in a positive way”.

It doesn’t take long to think of people who are like this. Ramaphosa, obviously, much of the leadership of the Gauteng ANC (the provincial Premier David Makhura has set up a panel on social cohesion), DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and there are many others. Further afield you could also look at people like former US President Barack Obama or perhaps someone like the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Then there are the other leaders that Mogapi talks about, who are “trauma carriers. When they are done speaking, you are more divided, you feel the pain more and actually they reignite the divisions in society”.

She goes on to say that “there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded leader leading a wounded society”. Again, the examples come easily, this is surely the category that former President Jacob Zuma falls into (he is due to speak soon at a Black First Land First event), along with people like EFF leader Julius Malema. In the US, the obvious example is Donald Trump, who grabbed the presidency promising to “make America great again” and published a book titled Crippled America, all of which is harking back to the past. Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his action against the Ukraine and a rumoured desire for restoration of a Soviet Union-type state, could also fall into this group.

While it is common in South Africa to deal with political leaders simply based on which party they belong to, or whether they are on the right or the left, healing/breaking divide is also a useful tool to analyse them. For example, there is an obvious overlap on this issue between people like Ramaphosa, Makhura and Maimane.

And there is also overlap between people like Malema and perhaps some of the personalities from the Freedom Front Plus, and even some leaders within the ANC (one, possibly flawed, rule of thumb might be whether or not the person uses the phrase “radical economic transformation”).

An easier way to determine this might be simply to ask if a party is inclusive or exclusive. Obviously, this is about more than just simple legality; the EFF will happily accept members who are white. Instead, we have to judge their public comments and what their posture is to these issues more generally.

Another way in which to examine leaders using this tool is to look at whether they focus on the past or the future. Trump’s main slogan shows that he is promising American whites a glorious past, Obama was offering a better future to everyone in which, as his slogan went, “Yes we can”.

In South Africa, Ramaphosa, Makhura and Maimane focus on the future, Malema and Zuma talk about the past. The problem with this is that, particularly in our case, the past is at the same time incredibly important and the reason for our racial unequality and, consequently, our painful present. This means that Ramaphosa and Maimane would be wrong not to talk about the past at all. Which means we have to consider the emphasis, rather than just whether a leader talks about the past or the future at all, or how much.

The other problem with all of this is that here, as in other countries such as Russia, talking about the past works, because it can also divide people in a politically useful way. Often in the good ol’ dirty art of politics, if you can divide people, if you can find what the strategists call “wedge issues”, issues on which you can differentiate yourself from your opponent, you can win. It is for this reason that Republicans in the US concentrated on what Obama once called “God, guns and gays”, in a bid to show how different they were from the Democrats, in a country where practically no one runs against capitalism and free enterprise.

The success of this politics of division can turn people who might have the potential to be “healing leaders” into something else. Every now and then there is an example of a politician who starts out as a moderate, and then becomes an extremist, simply because it was effective.

It may be useful in this case to consider the example of George Wallace in the US. This is a man who in his inauguration address as governor of Alabama said that he “stood for segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. But before that, he was described by an African-American lawyer as “the most liberal judge” that he had appeared in front of in Alabama.

Later, after using racist language and explicitly pushing for segregation, Wallace explained:

You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n%^^&$s, and they stomped the floor.”

This was a clear case of using division for political advantage. And for his career, as awful as it was, it worked.

(Wallace did get punished, though: he was paralysed in an assassination attempt in May 1972, which terminated his 1972 presidential bid. – Ed)

In our case, it is not racism that would be the way to make people “stomp the floor”, but the pain of the past, along with continuing racialised inequality. Any politician would know that this could be very powerful. And there is obviously evidence to show that some are already using those tools.

In the end, leadership is a huge part of this, but not everything. It would surely be more difficult for a leader to try to concentrate on the past and make people feel pain about it, if the economy was growing at seven percent annually. If that were the case, everyone would be focusing on making money in the present and the past could matter a little less. But if the economy is shrinking and a leader tries to heal, then the opposite could also be true; it could be that if our racialised inequality were to continue in its current form or even deepen, then a “healed” leader simply would not be able to succeed against that dynamic.

However, it can also be true that if nations end up living in the past, they can miss opportunities in the present. Russia is an example of this; other states, such as Yugoslavia, had leaders who kept talking about their glorious victory in World War II for decades after it was over; at the same time, Europe was healing, growing and uniting.

This is something that most South Africans would surely want to avoid. Especially when our past is so awful. In the end, it could perhaps be said, to mangle an old saying unnecessarily, that if our nation and its leaders do not learn the lessons of both our past and present, we are doomed to repeat them. DM


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