It’s been a tough week for South Africa. As the battle over The Spear finally draws to an end, a new war over e-tolling is only beginning, with government rolling out its tanks and persuading its top soldier to stay in the trenches. Let's talk about our wounds and our victories, writes ALEX ELISEEV.
I imagine standing on a war-torn battlefield, tired and wounded, but glad to have been part of the great Spear skirmish. For me, it’s been a sharp learning curve and I believe the whole thing will go down in history as one of the most bizarre ways to get a nation talking.
Earlier this week, a few thousand people marched to the Goodman Gallery, where the story began. It was an odd thing to do considering the painting was down, but it suited the politicians and landed up paving the way to some form of a compromise. During an awkward press conference the next morning, the ANC announced it would withdraw its court case against the gallery and the City Press newspaper, while the gallery admitted it was alive to the pain – the hurt and humiliation – the painting had caused.
During the same week, City Press took down the offending image of President Jacob Zuma – with his genitals exposed – from its website. Since the paper was the first to publish it, and found itself at the epicentre of the earthquake that followed, it was a significant development. Some continue to criticise it, but I believe it showed – as Brendan Boyle put it so beautifully – that: “South Africans must listen when others are weeping”.
I look back now and am amazed at how much emotion erupted over the painting. How when the ANC first challenged it, all I wanted to do was climb onto a soapbox and shout to defend freedom of expression. You can read those early thoughts here.
But then a respected advocate cried in court and some of South Africa’s most powerful black writers began painting the real picture of just how much pain continues to linger. For me, it was an awakening and a softening of attitude. Don’t mistake this for a change of view, or some sort of an apology – it’s neither. I stand by what I said. But what changed is my willingness to listen… to quiet down and hear the other side.
It’s clear that on this front we are moving away from the combat and towards the real debate. Not the angry shouting, but the psychological and emotional post-mortem of what happened. The Spear will leave a scar on South Africa’s skin, but it is the price we’ll pay for learning to listen.
Yes, there will be casualties; there always are. As I once wrote, the winds of the 2008 xenophobic mayhem blew across the land and changed us forever. Remember those images of the South African flag dripping in blood? And yet we look back at it now as something we never wish to return to. A mark showing us the lowest point. It’s a dramatic comparison, but I do think we can use the past few days as a reference point.
It’s foolish to think that xenophobia has been abolished, or that people will now stop wrestling with issues of race, culture, dignity and expression. They won’t. But maybe in future we can explore each other in a more constructive way.
Turn now towards the new battlefield.
Remember how much ground the opposition – the so-called rebels – gained after winning a court order to stop the launch of e-tolling? Do you recall all that talk of a new consciousness and of a tax revolt? Well, the government regrouped and yesterday offered a rather impressive display of power.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe convened a media briefing to discuss the outcome of a ministerial committee he was asked to chair into the controversial project. It was sold as a “reveal all” briefing, in which all the finer details would be discussed. When journalists pushed for those details, they were asked to stop “pulling teeth”, as a more technical briefing would be held later. So what was the point of yesterday’s session?
The most important issue that emerged was that government is now considering passing a new bill to bail out Sanral, which is bleeding buckets of blood each month. We don’t yet know how much the bailout will amount to, or where the cash will come from, but it’s a clear signal that government remains committed to e-tolling and to not letting Sanral default on its debt. The move says: “We’re in this until the bitter end”.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan used the opportunity to claim that the collection of tariffs would cost far less (20% of revenue, once the project is up and running) than previously thought, and therefore makes economic sense. Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele tried to convince everyone that alternative transport and routes exist for those who didn’t want to pay for tolls. And then, while answering the last question of the day, Motlanthe let slip that the search for a new Sanral CEO had been called off.
This was an astonishing fact, considering Nazir Alli had resigned and the board had accepted his resignation, making it that an acting CEO had been found. In other words, the farewell cake had been eaten.
But it seems the order to persuade him to stay came tumbling down from Motlanthe’s committee, which felt he had too much experience to be allowed to leave. We were told that while Alli offered to fall on his sword over the e-tolling mess, government gave him the “it’s not your fault” speech and informed him that it had other plans for him.
The reaction to this has been mixed. Cosatu quickly claimed that Sanral would live to regret bringing Alli back. Others reminded us how well he ran the organisation for years and that Sanral would be lost without him. There’s no denying that he has crucial organisational memory and is a key player. Plus many considered him to have been the scapegoat all along. Wherever the truth lies, his return is another sign that government is digging in for a fight by redeploying its top talent.
With all that, and the constitutional court appeal that has been launched, Ndebele’s words have a particular ominous ring to them: “South Africa must be a construction site… you ain’t seen nothing yet”.
Perhaps not, but we’ve seen a hell of a lot for one week.
Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.