Defend Truth


Quo Vadis, South Africa?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

At times, I worry about the direction this country is taking. But that’s all I have to offer really - my worries and my questions. This column is about questions.

We’ve had a really odd year. In April, men from our northern provinces were preparing horses and pistols. The country was on the brink of race war, or so they thought. The national discourse took on a very ugly tone as the extremists suddenly found their voices. A few weeks before, a young politician had revived an old struggle song which was cynically calculated to infuriate the white farmers who were in a mild state of panic because of the uptick in violent robberies in the rural areas. The young politician’s ploy curdled horribly when Eugene Terre’Blanche was brutally murdered in his own farmhouse, which turned a song against apartheid into a song about something far more sinister. It was a strange time, when all the cool heads in the country seemed to go quiet all at once.

Then came the World Cup, undoubtedly one of South Africa’s few instances when tension of some sort didn’t loom in the air. Things worked almost splendidly, and wherever you looked, you saw signs of things being done right. I believe the greatest joy of that period wasn’t so much the tourists and the flags and the Spaniards playing football, as it was the sense that the authorities were actually doing their jobs and doing them well. We took great pride in that, and phoned into radio talk shows to express our admiration for our bosses. We accepted our speeding tickets with pride. How quickly that soured. Then it all fell apart again when our public servants took to the streets in August. And once again, words like “indecisive” and “weak” reappeared in our description of the incumbent administration.

To my mind, 2010 is a metaphor for the country’s future. South Africa is capable of achieving amazing things if only it could organise and group around a common vision and strategy. On the peripheries, the extremists and populists stand ready to hijack South Africa for their own nefarious ends. The question of race simply refuses to go away, its embers stoked by white right wing reactionaries and black racial nationalists alike.

In the padded hallways of the Union Buildings, a gigantic squabble has broken out over who gets to steer our economy, and I wonder whether we shouldn’t be concerning ourselves more about that, rather than harping on and on about race. 

In the end, we’re left with the picture of a country alive with possibility, in every possible direction, and no clear indication of which one it will take.  Confounded by all this, I turned to a few friends and tweeters, hoping to tease out from them some idea of what South Africa might look like in the future.

Bronwyn Nortje at UCT’s Centre for Social Science Research said the problem of the economic bunfight I alluded to earlier (essentially, a fight over the as-yet-undefined “developmental state”), is that no one really knows what ought to be done. “Thabo Mbeki alluded to a developmental state ages ago,” she said. “It was a very popular idea: state control in targeted industries that would promote economic growth. Such as has been done in Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan and so forth.

But essentially, the trouble with the notion of a developmental state is that there exists no clear blueprint for what features define a developmental state, and what factors are needed for a developmental state to succeed.

Given all of these difficulties, the one thing that can be said, is that a developmental state will only succeed with clear and decisive leadership,” Nortje said.

But the future may be sabotaged by our current inabilities to deal with this country’s history. Race was superimposed on power in politics and the economy, and the results are still with us today.

Metro FM’s Azania Ndoro said that for her, righting past wrongs was still a very important issue. “For as long as injustices occur, we can’t just move past race,” she said. “In so many aspects of our lives, race plays a part. Whether it’s the salary difference between races, service at establishments or the skills and education gaps, race still permeates our lives. To move past race right now is to put a bandage over a wound that hasn’t stopped bleeding.

To simply move past race means forgetting about experiences that have shaped who we are.  Time makes it easier for us deal with issues, but time doesn’t direct or shape the consequences or results of injury,” Ndoro said.

Ndoro mentioned the lack of strong, visionary leadership in South Africa. Is that the great problem then, this lack of leadership? Is that what is hindering us from tackling the issues dogging our societies?

Osiame Molefe believes so. “I come from a corporate strategy background and I think that having a vision and setting a plan to get there is key to achieving anything whether as an individual, a corporation or a society,” he said.

Defining a shared vision for South Africa is the big question of our time, because without it, everything else that comes afterward – our plans, our strategies, interventions, objectives – will never gain the traction they need. Our racial past, our violent society, our corruption issues, social woes, inequalities, etc. will only ever be addressed within the framework of a shared vision,” Molefe said.

The success of the World Cup was the result of all of us having a common vision (graciously handed to us from Zurich, granted) and translating that vision into a set of manageable and achievable goals. We seem to abandon that approach the moment we enter buildings of public service and administration.

But it isn’t just for government to craft that common vision. Civil society has a massive role to play. The youth (oh, the youth) has its role too – and I only wish we’d involve ourselves more in the crafting of the country. I don’t know if we can be satisfied with letting the old determine the course of the country. It will be our country soon, after all. We can’t let bad leadership ruin things any more. That has happened too often for us to be happy with the current course of events – look how they squandered the momentum created by the World Cup. There’s too much at stake, and the extremists are at the door, waiting for a slip-up so they can drag the country into anarchy, where they can plunder and pillage at leisure. But it isn’t too late. We’re really still at the formative stage of South Africa, not entirely sure where we want to go. But in order to arrive at the correct answers, we need to be asking the right questions. I don’t think we are. DM


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