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Opinionista

Can South Africans shed the skin of the Zuma years and reclaim this country of our skulls?

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

As South Africa approaches 8 May 2019 and its 6th democratic elections, it is a country that appears to be fractured and unable to reconcile. It is a country not only wracked by poverty, unemployment and deep inequality, but also battling to deal with the ‘nine wasted years’ of Jacob Zuma-led corruption and State Capture. And yet — and there is always a yet — South Africans are resilient people, and have achieved the impossible in the past.

between you and me
how desperately
how it aches
how desperately it aches between you and me

so much hurt for truth
so much destruction
so little left for survival

where do we go from here

your voice slung
in anger
over the solid cold length of our past

how long does it take
for a voice
to reach another

in this country held bleeding between us

The solid cold length of our past”, as Antjie Krog puts it so extraordinarily in her poem, Country of Grief and Grace, continues to be negotiated every day in 2019 and in fraught and complex ways.

As floods swept KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape last week, it was as ever the poor and vulnerable in our society who suffered most, whose lives were lost and whose ramshackle homes were swept away. The violence of poverty knows no bounds, battering and beating down on its victims repeatedly. Past and present collide, as old inequity remains stubborn in the face of poor governance, corruption and a lack of political will. As we speak about land rights we negotiate (often carelessly) the “original sin” of 1913 and what Sol Plaatje in his 1916 Native Life in South Africa called “the melancholy situation” of how the “South African native found himself… a pariah in the land of his birth”.

As we approach 8 May and our 6th democratic elections we are a country fractured and unable to reconcile. We are not only wracked by poverty, unemployment and deep inequality, but also battling to deal with the “nine wasted years” of Zuma-led corruption and State Capture. Each day the news is a tiresome litany of the excesses of the former administration and the rot within the ANC itself. Some, like its secretary-general Ace Magashule, actively and enthusiastically defend Zuma and his cronies while simultaneously seeking to hide their own graft.

It’s a vicious cycle where the corrupt are relentless in their pursuit of continued access to state resources and of protecting themselves against possible prosecution.

So we enter these elections mostly weary and with a deep feeling of mistrust in one another (as populist politicians try to divide us further) and those in power. This is as fewer young people between the ages of 18 and 19 have registered to vote in this election. That number has fallen by 47% compared with the 2014 elections. Youth apathy towards organised politics is not unique to South Africa; however, the impact on our politics will be significant. South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of 52%, far higher than our SADC neighbours. In the 25- to 34-year-old age group, only one in three South Africans has a job. Much of this has to do with the abysmal failure of the post-apartheid education system.

During the #FeesMustFall protests at universities we heard a younger generation blame Mandela for “selling us out”. The Constitution itself has become a convenient scapegoat for all that is wrong in our society. That argument mostly ignores the complexities and historical context of the time, as well as the role those in power play (or fail to play) in implementing the constitutional promise.

Is it any wonder that our dialogue is brittle and blame is apportioned readily and angrily? When we disagree, we appear not to be listening; we turn up the volume and out-shout the other. Is apartheid to blame for our current ills, someone asserts, or the corruption prevalent across so much of the government — as if every answer to complexity is a mutually exclusive one. Perhaps it is all the fault of the liberal media? And so it goes on.

There is often no space for the middle ground, or for one finding the other, only the anger of exclusion and unfulfilled promises.

As a country, we clearly underestimated the apartheid legacy and the ability to create a “developmental state”, too little emphasis was placed on mobilising citizens’ energies for change and short-termism by government compromised the sustained transformation of society.

There was also an assumption that elected officials and public servants were incorruptible and the unintended consequences of policy choices (BBB-EE is an example) were not adequately recognised and a consensus was often “imposed” from policy mavens or, as in the Zuma years, the policy was simply left recklessly unattended.

As the National Development Plan (NDP) — that dusty document we seldom refer to anymore — also contends, without a new development trajectory South Africans will remain unequal, poor and lacking the cohesion necessary to live together peacefully. Into such a vacuum all manner of things come. Julius Malema and others can spew forth thoughtless populist promises at will.

And violence, whether by state repression at Marikana, xenophobic attacks or from one citizen to the other (whether on our university campuses, in protest action or elsewhere) becomes a means of problem-solving.

we carry death
in a thousand cleaving spectres
affected
afflicted
we carry death

we carry death into the houses
and a language without mercy

Yet — and there is always a yet in South Africa — as we see time and time again, there is something at the heart of society, a resilience that has seen the impossible wrought by us despite our differences.

It is that spirit which we evoked in 1994. It will be almost impossible to evoke that spirit again even as it is required to consciously rebuild that which Zuma broke.

What is required now is real leadership and the steely pragmatism to deal with our economic challenges and take some hard, principled decisions after 8 May 2019. In this country of great complexity and contradiction, our freedom is linked not only to economic emancipation and opportunity, but also a sense of understanding and relating to “the other” across the ingrained fault lines of race and class.

The task ahead will not be easy and it will be a long while (if ever) until we will truly be able to say, as Krog felt so viscerally after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

because of you
this country no longer lies
between us but within

it breathes becalmed
after being wounded
in its wondrous throat

in the cradle of my skull
it sings it ignites
DM

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