When freedom came in 1994, South Africans believed that we were an exceptional nation. We believed that we had achieved the extraordinary.
We had made peace where there had been none, and we had succeeded in defining ourselves by what we were not: we were not Northern Ireland, we were not Palestine, we were not Burma.
On a cool April morning 19 years ago, at almost precisely the same moment that bones began to shatter and pangas began to hack their way across a tiny kingdom far to the north, as blood rained a genocide in the distant heat of Africa, we took our glorious place in the sun, proudly proclaiming our freedom. We were not Rwanda.
The moment that we cast our ballots, we were remade. South Africans were suddenly a different and a special breed. The world told us that we represented a miracle and we concurred, we were indeed a wonder to behold.
Somehow the simple story of a tired nation that was hungry for peace – fed by CNN and an eager international community – had become a story about a nation that had miraculously been delivered into a “historical moment”, with saints as its midwives.
Today that idea lies in tatters at our feet.
The truth is messy. There is no denying that providence gave us remarkable leaders. It is true that we were on the brink of war many times, but it is also true that in the end, we saved ourselves. There was no magic and no secret ingredient; just us, a people determined to bring Apartheid to an end because we were exhausted by the long and bitter fight, because we weary of indignity and shame.
Perhaps this is where the trouble began. Because you see, when a nation becomes exceptional, when that nation becomes star-struck by its own leaders and captured by its own specialness, it may not know what to do when bad things begin to happen again. That nation can be fooled into waiting for another “historical moment”, before it can change course. It may wait for another saviour, and this can be a long and dangerous wait.
Two decades into South Africa’s spectacular departure from Apartheid, a generation into the triumph of our peace, we find ourselves in the midst of a long and painful season of lying and self-justification. Our contemporary politics have become ugly and violent both in rhetoric and in deed.
Lawlessness and disrespect for human life characterise our society, across all social and economic classes, and these traits reflect our decaying politics.
To tell the stories of the extraordinary people who have survived these times is to not tell the stories of the ordinary ways in which the decay has happened. It is to ignore the routine decisions by bureaucrats and the actions of politicians that step-by-painful-step have lead South Africa to this place of discontentment and brokenness.
In the absence of leaders in whom we can trust and in the midst of a politics that has degenerated into a succession of battles that wound everybody and resolve nothing, we await the return of the saviours.
Perhaps the time has come for us to stop waiting. Perhaps the time has come for us to object when the names of our old leaders are used to cover up the sins of the present. We must see the ruse for what it is so that we no longer participate in the discussion when the names of the dead are invoked. We must refuse to go along with them when they tell us what Chris Hani would have done in the face of troubles like these. We must stop wishing that Steve Biko were here. We must let go of Madiba and stop being petrified that our exceptionalism will die with him.
In 1978, June Jordan wrote A Poem for South African Women. The last line of the poem is my favourite and I have returned to it often in recent years.
With prescience and quiet certainty Jordan asserted what all South Africans must by now surely know; that “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. DM
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