There are reasons to cheer ourselves up, and it is time for South Africans to make a compact. Let’s list them, and sign up for something better than all this.
Late 1970s England was a time of growing discontent. But it was also a time of rupture and creativity. One of the symbols of disruption was Ian Dury, a singer who was part punk rock and part traditional music-hall. Occasionally Dury and his talented band, the Blockheads, crossed-over combing disco, funk and rap with punk and obscenity. But whatever the polio-withered Dury sang had an edge, including his controversial, outraging anti-political correctness anthem Spasticus Autisticus in which he waned:
“Hello to you out there in normal land.
You may not comprehend my tale or understand.”
In 1979, during Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’, his song, Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 made top of the pops.
Dury’s listed as reasons to be cheerful:
Health service glasses, gigolos and brasssies
Round or skinny bottoms
Take your mum to Paris, lighting up the chalice
Wee Willy Harris
Bantu Steven Biko, listening to Riko
Harpo, Graucho, Chico
To you and me, Dury’s reference to Bantu Steven Biko alongside health service glasses probably seems odd and out of place, particularly coming from an uncouth working class punk rocker. Be that as it may, it’s there. The fact that Steve Biko got Dury’s mention is testament to the manner in which the South African liberation struggle, our people’s resilience, had attracted global attention. (In the handwritten MS of the song Dury had written, then crossed out, “the love” of Steven Biko and “remember” Steven Biko.)
As Margaret Thatcher consolidated her power, the decent people of the world had latched their dreams onto the anti-apartheid struggle and begun to own our heroes, people such as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.
I remember. I was there. Ok.
40 years later, South Africa’s current bumper crop of degenerate leaders have sullied that struggle.
Dury, who died of cancer in 2000, would have had lots of foul words for them. But let them not cloud our own reasons to be cheerful. In the days ahead of us, as we reach a tipping point in the growing rebellion against a corrupt President and his destructive, sly and ever-diminishing alliance of praise singers (Mzwanele Manyi and the Relics, we might call them) it’s important to remind ourselves that in South Africa there are still many ‘reasons to be cheerful’.
Alternatively, as ratings agencies consider punishing South Africa’s whole people for the sins of a few hundred with a cataclysmic downgrade active citizens, gathering under banners like SaveSouthAfrica should ask them to consider the underlying strength and uniqueness of this society.
So here, good people, are reasons to be cheerful.
Despite all the corruption and mismanagement brought about by some Health and Basic Education MECs, we have public hospitals and schools that have thrived because of dedicated principals, teachers and health workers.
Despite Thabo Mbeki, we recovered from AIDS denialism and we have three million people on treatment.
Despite Shaun Abrahams, there are many prosecutors and investigators who continue to give their all to the fight against real crime and earn an honest living from it. Sadly, they are rarely seen or heard below the raucous snorting of their corrupt colleagues.
Wherever I go in my work, I find myself inspired by the intelligence and concern of ordinary people battling quietly to survive in communities made hostile by state neglect and corruption. There’s no shortage of human resources or intelligence to make our country work.
We have a Constitutional Court whose jurisprudence is the toast of the world; an ex-Public Protector who brought much-needed integrity to a chapter 9 institution; and a small army of public servants who swim against the stream – largely unrecognized and, mostly, unrewarded.
Here and there there is a sycophantic praise-writers, but they are outnumbered by a phalanx of older and newer writers whose descriptions perfectly capture our condition and our country; read Zakes Mda’s Madonna of Excelsior before your next trip through the towns of the Free State. Dust JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians off your shelf. Discover the torture of Sello Duiker and you will understand the anguish of black youth. Take the trouble to find out about the intellectual fermentation going on among young writers in the spaces you don’t look into.
Although Madiba has gone, few other countries are still home to a handful of the last untarnished moral voices of an idealistic age. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Graca Machel are our living heroes. They are also global moral leaders.
We have the Comrades Marathon and world champions as athletes, people like Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk, athletes who rise from the squalor of informal settlements. We have a soccer team, Mamelodi Sundowns, who are African champions.
Then we have a vigilant civil society and great civic organisations and movements like the Treatment Action Campaign and R2K; pioneering journalists; a tradition of rebellion and independence in women stretching from Olive Schreiner to Ruth First, from Winnie Mandela to Shaeera Kalla.
We have our Constitution, possibly the only Constitution in the world to make the notion of “social justice” one of its cornerstones. In the era of neo-liberalism we made social justice, “the stone that the builder refuse”, our country’s “head cornerstone”.
Then there’s our varied geography; human, geological, ethereal, historical. Several days ago, after meeting a beautiful young woman by the name of Nontuthuko on a trail run in the Maloti Mountains, I was suddenly struck by infinite variety of names we have in South Africa. The English have bland names like Petal, Pam and Petunia. We have Nontuthuko, Nomvula, Nozizwe, Nobantu, Nomalanga, Nomatter, Ntsiki, Nelisiwe and so on and on.
There are many more reasons to be cheerful. I challenge you to list them. They are part of our strength, our reserves. They make us far more powerful than our adversaries.
We have a good story to tell. We are nations of peoples who, within the artificial borders drawn by people in a far away place, joined forces to fight for people’s right to dignity and equality. My reasons to be cheerful are not the Zuma faction’s crass ‘good story to tell’. In fact to the contrary. Most of what I have described is of efforts by people who have now become alienated from the government and the party of our birth, the ANC. Where our country is beautiful it is being made ugly by neglect, dug up and sold to the highest bidder, regardless of consequence for our cultures, traditions or environment.
We have a great deal of preventable illness, poverty, inequality, violence against women. Imagine how much greater we all could be if all our diversity was supported by and supportive of government. If it was harnessed and marshaled for the cause of equality.
That is the story of the country South Africa could still become.
So, as we weather the current political storm, it’s worth reminding ourselves of all of this. Indeed, protecting our crowns of jewels from being stripped, is good reason for you to join the throng to defend Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and all people who resist orders from the corrupt and demand a government and national political leadership that reflects our dignity. A Declaration to this effect will be published on 2 November. Look out for it on SaveSouthAfrica Facebook page.
The compact we should make is this:
“We, the people, will rescue the South African state and democracy not in order to return to the status quo, but to restore the dream of equality and opportunity that was nailed into our Constitution.”
Finally, to return to Ian Dury and the issue of hope. South Africa’s dream and spirit is needed not only to remedy the ills of inequality and oppression we face on our own soil. We live in a dangerous world of Trumps, Mays, Putins, Modis, Dutertes, al-Assads and Clintons. In the last year we have witnessed again the strivings of people from something different in the mass support garnered by people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. There is a hole where there should be hope in the global imaginary.
South Africa has something better to lead with.
South Africa’s spirit and moral voice, if we can rescue it from the dogs, is needed once more on the international stage. Instead of playing to the lowest common denominator, Al Bashir and Mugabe, by withdrawing South Africa from the Rome Statute, we should be asserting the spirit of equality and diversity that infuses our Constitution.