I’m aware that it is Nelson Mandela’s birthday today (Sunday, 18 July). Depending on who you listen to, this year’s Mandela Day is either dripping with poignancy because of how far we’ve fallen from the prelapsarian Eden of the mid-90s, or beautifully fitting because we can all get out there and do what Madiba would have wanted: namely, sweep up all the broken shops.
I’m aware that it is Nelson Mandela’s birthday today, but the rhetoric around it is sort of just sticking in my craw a bit this year, on account of the more than 200 people killed in violent and terrifying ways in the days leading up to the anniversary, and a bunch of other stuff.
I don’t want to feel this way. I would really like to get on board with the post-riot nation-building narrative. And I’m deeply grateful to those citizens who have. I have watched my fair share of montage videos featuring multi-coloured South Africans cleaning and rebuilding, set to the music of Johnny Clegg, and I have choked back some tears.
But I have also choked back some rage. Because, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, we shouldn’t have to keep doing this. We shouldn’t have to keep coming together as a nation in the name of Mandela to rebuild. We shouldn’t have to keep digging deep, and keep rallying together, and keep mining that indomitable spirit of South Africanness we keep being told about, and keep making withdrawals from the rapidly depleting Ubuntu Bank.
My friend Sarah put it best, in a WhatsApp this week.
“I am so sick and tired of our national character having to be RESILIENT,” she wrote.
As South Africans, we don’t get to be playful, or grumpy, or stingy, or sexy, or any one of a hundred other options for national stereotypes. We get to be RESILIENT. A nation of resilient little battlers, constantly picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off after national tragedy or government scandal.
Which brings me to another matter. The events of the past week have caused even the likes of me, who previously did not have a libertarian bone in her body, to ponder the question: What, actually, is the point of a government?
What is the point of a government, when we know that it was private security and ordinary civilians who held the line this past week? For all the praise that Cabinet ministers have retrospectively doled out to police and the army, we have all seen the footage of cops responding to the riots with approximately the same urgency as a hungover teenager doing the dishes under duress.
Which was a teeny bit weird, because we’ve all also seen the footage of cops blasting a water cannon on elderly and disabled social grant applicants in January this year after giving them one minute to disperse.
What is the point of a government, when we know that it is warm-hearted citizens and NGOs who will largely be responsible for feeding those who must now go hungry? When Gift of the Givers announced they were on their way to fix things, I can’t be the only one who wished for the hundredth time that we could just chuck the keys to the Union Buildings to Imtiaz Sooliman and be done with it.
And what is the point of a government, when we’ve seen all those heroic ordinary people cleaning up the chaotic aftermath of the riots?
President Cyril Ramaphosa praised these wonderful folk in his Friday night address, and then took things a step further — suggesting that it might be nice if we all came together as a nation to keep cleaning, every month or so, as is compulsory in many African and Asian countries.
When I heard that bit of his speech, it took all my self-control not to put a fist through my laptop screen. Because really: Pick your moment, Mr Prez. We’ve just been brutalised by a tsunami of violence playing out on live TV, a traumatising explosion reaping the whirlwind of inequality and poverty, and one of your proposed solutions is that maybe all the good South Africans, the non-looters, or even perhaps the repented looters, should get out there more often with a broom?
In the radio-edited words of Justin Bieber, Mr President: You should go and love yourself.
This is not the mid-90s. This is not the Rugby World Cup, or the Fifa World Cup, or the Miss Universe pageant. This is not a moment to market internationally as evidence of our exceptionalism once more; or our gift for forgiving and forgetting — which would seem certifiable in a person by now.
This is a tinderbox of a state, teetering on the edge from years of corrupt misrule. This is things well and truly falling the fuck apart. This is a government that has failed its people again, and again, and again.
When you look at those hardy and magnificent citizens out there cleaning the streets, Mr President, you should not feel national pride. What you should feel is shame. Shame that for the millionth time in this country’s history, it will be ordinary people dragging this nation forward once more. DM