A few weeks ago, my fellow columnist Sisonke Msimang delivered a stunning address at the Daily Maverick Gathering. Talking about the key events in her adult life, which had led to her now changing her political allegiance, she also painted a sobering portrait of “the dangers of exceptionalism”. Rather than unattainable expectations of exceptionalism, she argued, South Africans would do well to accept a more realistic truth - that as a nation, we are not exceptional. We are neither favoured, nor are we scorned. We simply are.
As we approach of the 20th anniversary of our democracy, this is the hard truth of our two-decade-long journey. The touchstones – those individual events which in future years will come to be seen as being responsible for the monumental shifts currently occurring in our society – highlight this sobering reality. Ultimately, it will be left to the discretion of future generations to judge which of these touchstones are the most influential. But indulge me as I present my top 15. Subjective at best, but hopefully useful to augment Msimang’s point that the sooner we realise the dangers of exceptionalism (and the fact that while our democracy’s initial experiences may have been exceptional, all our subsequent ones have not been) the easier it will become for us to progress on our path towards a just and more inclusive society.
In my book, our first key milestone actually happened more than 20 years ago, but I begin with it because even though it preceded the birth of our democracy, it remains the sine qua non event of its time. Twenty-one years ago in April 1993, our incipient negotiated revolution came the closest it ever did to being unravelled. That was the day on which Chris Hani was assassinated, 10 April 1993; the day in which angry mobs with mists of blood rising in their eyes sought to unleash the dogs of war on the country – and the day on which Nelson Mandela stood before the nation, and in a speech of unparalleled dignity and authority brought us back from the precipice. In doing so, he proved to the world who was actually in charge of South Africa, even if he didn’t yet have the formal title of president. Our tryst with destiny was beginning. Fast-forward a year to our next event, in April 1994, when the magical day of democracy finally arrived; the day which had previously pained us even to dream about. All our collective hopes, our fears and aspirations were in evidence that day – but nothing more prominent than the pride we felt.
With Mandela’s words echoing in our head – “The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement”- we beamed. And we beamed again two years later, in December 1996, when Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa proudly held aloft our new Constitution. Milestone Number 3, our template for becoming a just and caring society, was what we had fought so bitterly for. Arguably the most progressive Constitution in the world, it gave voice to Mandela’s words – “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
These were the years of exceptionalism – the years of champagne and of limitless possibility. Giddy with delight, we paid little attention to the roving temptations of power to which our new leaders were now exposed. It was bound to happen, of course – but did it have to happen so early on, while we were still on honeymoon? Milestone 4 was, of course, the Arms Deal – that poisoned well of South African politics into which so many dipped. Between June and August 1997, Cabinet and Parliament approved the first phase of the “Defence Review”- and the first signs that those in power had begun to lose their moral compass emerged. Future generations will discern in this the beginnings of our leaders morphing instead into our masters. It was the point at which, to quote Edward Said, they were prepared to “repeat untruths until they have the force of truth.” We have essentially been cursed since that day.
Cursed, perhaps, but not yet doomed – for despite the assaults on our hard-earned freedom, we still had a document for all times – a document to keep our leaders accountable, as long as we remembered to call upon it. My 5th milestone occurs with the death of someone who sadly remains little known. In November 1998, the brave gay-rights activist Simon Nkoli died from Aids whilst his government stubbornly refused to accept the existence of the scourge ravaging the countryside. His death, together with fellow Aids activist Gugu Dlamini’s, would unleash a tidal wave of civil society dissonance in the form of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The TAC drew inspiration from the Constitution, which obliged the government to provide access to free healthcare for its people. In large part due to the TAC, access to life-supporting ARVs was grudgingly made possible and millions of lives saved (but not before hundreds of thousands others had been lost). In much the same vein, the next seminal moment of our collective journey – number 6 – occurred in October 2000, when the landmark Grootboom case was heard before the Constitutional Court. “Grootboom” reasserted the peoples’ constitutional right to adequate housing to be provided for by government. Subsequent cases confirmed that forced removals could only be ordered if our leaders had made provision for alternative accommodation. A third of the way into our democracy, it was a golden age of civil society and social justice.
But it was also the age of Thabo Mbeki, and thus it simultaneously came to be known as a period of creeping paranoia and of hardening centralism. It was the era of the detached technocrat, furiously building, but at what cost? We longed for the human touch, as those not at the trough began baying for their turn to lift their snout to it.
And when they finally had their victory, the decimation with which it was achieved was profound. The ground literally shook under our feet for event 7 – Polokwane, December 2007, the Night of the Long Knives. With a swift scythe, the left violently usurped power, and an unsuitable king was replaced by an even more unsuitable one. Shorn of its liberation-movement aura, the ANC was exposed instead as the protector of patronage. If we had been cursed before, now we were inviolably doomed.
But South Africans are a curious bunch, and we refused to slip meekly into the night. For we still continued to dream, and to cling to the belief that all things were possible. By now the concept of the Rainbow Nation may have frayed at the edges, unmasked for its well-intentioned naivete, but our pride as South Africans continued to burnish bright. We cheered with the successful conclusion of milestone 8 – our magnificent hosting of the 2010 World Cup – and for those magical four weeks, the smiles returned and we seemed united again, however falsely. Even Madiba made an appearance. But historians will probably see it as a carefree island set amidst an increasingly turbulent ocean.
For all the soccer balls and manicured stadiums, for all the international tourists who safely enjoyed a beer in Orlando West after one of the matches, South Africa still remained a country at war with its people. In April 2011, a former maths teacher, Andries Tatane, was shot by police in Ficksburg as he protested against poor service delivery. His death – milestone 9 – came to be called “a watershed moment in public perceptions of state violence after Apartheid” by the Daily Maverick, and indeed it was so, for it laid bare the groundswell of dissatisfaction with the pace of transformation. That year, the Mail & Guardian estimated that three-quarters of those aged between 20 and 29 didn’t vote in the local government elections, but were “more likely to have taken part in violent street protests against the local ANC.” In every year since then, we have seen service delivery protests increasing both in size and ferocity.
State violence now stalks the country at every turn – the venal twin of violent crime which has scarred the country since before its rebirth. A year and a half later, in August 2012, a koppie near the Nkaneng informal settlement becomes the gathering place for striking miners in the platinum belt. Many of those miners never left that infamous koppie – Wonderkop – alive, mowed down by the police services seemingly under orders from a government unconcerned with the plight of the community’s vulnerability. This milestone, Marikana, Number 10, ushers in a monumental shift in the country’s attitude towards the state of our nation, and the fault lines which have riven our society.
But our political masters appear unbowed by the shifting winds. For them, all dissent is treasonable, and must be stamped out. In yet another sad milestone, they passed the Protection of State Information Bill, which will severely obstruct the free flow of information and criminalise whistleblowing. It is an act worthy of grand Apartheid. The saddest part of the whole affair is the denouement, where despite overwhelming protest from civil society and the public at large, ANC MPs did not vote with their conscience and the bill is rubber-stamped through Parliament.
We’re up to numbers 12 and 13 now and the touchstones are coming through thick and fast. Both Guptagate and Nkandlagate are heavy with the symbolism of just how far the ANC has fallen; just how unworthy its current leaders are for high office. More than mere cronyism (although that is an indictment in itself) both episodes reveal the depths to which his acolytes will go to protect “Number One.”
Does the venerable old Madiba discern anything of what it going on in his beloved land? Now 95 and frail, we pray not. In milestone Number 14, Wwhen the great man eventually succumbed, in December 2013, we mourn both the father of our nation and the betrayal of his dream.
And so to the final touchstone of our twenty years of democracy. But will it, in fact, become Milestone Number 15? On 7 May 2014, South Africans return to the scene of their most glorious triumph – the polls. Will the 2014 elections lead to a reversal in our fortunes; a return to the path we originally set our sails for? Will it become the great corrector; something for future generations to laud as a key shaper of the first decades of our democracy? Our fate lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. See you at the polls in two weeks. And forget about exceptionalism. DM
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Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab
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