It’s a new decade, a decade of hope, or a decade of fear. This is an amazing opportunity for reflection and redirection. It is a time when we create new resolutions, new goals and ultimately embark with determination to be our better selves. South Africa enters a new decade with the same sense of optimism as others, but we may have fewer reasons to hope for change than we ever had.
I listened to President Cyril Ramaphosa address the ANC and the nation over the weekend, and like most of us who watched, I get the sense that while we may be entering a new decade, we are still stuck in the last one. We have the no smart goals, no better sense of self and we still have our challenges from the last decade. We are still trying to manage the long-standing crises created by chronic mismanagement nationwide and misappropriation.
It’s 2020 and we are still discussing load shedding, we are still discussing the need for an “intervention”, a conversation that started more than a decade ago. It’s, in fact, a new cast, but perhaps the same old script. I think that we can all accept that we cannot put new wine in old wine skins. We need a fresh start, a new beginning and a new sense of us. Our people are innovative and great, and we possess all the necessary acumen to build a great nation: A South Africa that can prosper and be an inclusive economy.
We can reach that promised land, but first, we need to take back the national narrative from the populists and radicals. We need to define a common national identity, one that is robust and future-proof – to do that we have to be more honest about the challenges we are facing.
Over the Christmas break, I keenly observed the dangers of rampant partisanship in the American political system. I observed carefully how US President Donald Trump’s impeachment process was playing out and its impact on different constituencies in the US. It became very clear that the vision espoused by former president Barack Obama in his famed 2004 Democratic National Convention address was nowhere to be found. A speech I have watched countless times and one that connected with my value system and worldview, his words still echo, but now with a hollow ring …
“Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America,” said Obama during that famous 2004 speech.
Watching the debate recently, I could not shake off the conclusion that each side was preaching to its choir. The Democrats argued, during the long impeachment debate, that they were acting out of a sense of duty and not out of a partisan political agenda. They made the case that a failure to proceed with impeachment would be adversely judged in the history books and would create a precedent for presidential impunity. They stated that to not act on the wrongdoing of this magnitude by the president would be undemocratic and would reflect a lack of patriotism.
The Republicans argued strongly that this was a frivolous impeachment and that it was a continuation of the democratic party’s angst at the fact that Trump was the duly elected president and that an impeachment was a reversal of the election results. They stated that this process was a fiasco and was unpatriotic because it sought to defeat the electoral process by other means. Each side is claiming the moral high-ground, each side is claiming the ideals of democracy and patriotism.
It reminded me of the days during the debate on the motion of no confidence in former president Jacob Zuma. Each side argued patriotism and upholding the democratic will of the people. Each side in the debate claimed they were acting in the national interest to keep, or remove, Zuma. What is our patriotic duty in keeping a government that on most indicators has failed and is now leading us to a junk status? The facts speak for themselves: There is no power, or water in many towns, there is a high unemployment rate and there is an erosion of our institutional democracy.
Ultimately, history will decide for South Africa, as it will for America. The question still remains, what then does it mean to be patriotic in this political landscape, as we are confronted with the challenges of race divisions, inequality, poverty and unemployment all borne out of a stubborn apartheid legacy?
Rodney King made a passionate plea during the Los Angeles riots: “Why can’t we all just get along.” I often feel that very same way when I am at home with my family. I celebrate our diversity and I often wish I could fast forward to the happy ending of a truly unified South Africa. One that puts a nail in the coffin of our apartheid legacy. While I want to declare, “there is no white South Africa, there is no black South Africa, there is no Indian South Africa … there is only one South Africa”, I want to say this as a matter of fact, but I realise more and more that this is an aspirational declaration. The rainbow nation is, I believe, a worthy goal, but if this is a Comrades Marathon, we are only at the 10km mark.
I have shaken off the naivete that Obama embraced, Obama held on to it to the end, but the myth of “One America” has been exposed over and over again in the Trump process. America is very divided and unless these divisions are healed, the empire will fall. While I want to snap my fingers and declare “One South Africa for all” – we are simply not there yet.
One South Africa requires an equitable South Africa. No nations win when they are divided. We have to find our sense of us in an equal embrace of the challenges affecting the weakest among us. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A country is only as strong as its most vulnerable. Our nation must deal with its past and focus on the future together.
The challenge of inequality is not one that we must leave to the poor and marginalised to face alone, that the history of black people must simply be ignored. As Lyndon Johnson articulated in the fight for the emancipation of African Americans, that this is now indeed an American problem. The challenge of inequality be it educational, asset and/or income inequality is a South African problem, it is a challenge for us all, black, coloured, Indian and white to work towards overcoming. Our national identity will be created as we come together to fight this collective enemy.
We cannot leave populists in red or black, green and gold to lay claim to the mantle of fighting for the poor and marginalised. They resonate with the poor and predominantly black communities because these communities feel isolated and ignored by those sitting at the tables of power and commerce. Poor voters see the populists as champions, people who will get them a share of the cake, people who will speak up for them in the corridors of power.
We also cannot live with the populists on the right in blue, or green and white, claiming the mantle of defending the minorities. While others are embracing a strategy of political survival based on the demonisation of the left and its radical leaders, they are embarking on a project of fear and hate, using the black populists as talismans. Those who seek to survive our political landscape by selling hate are no different than those they claim to oppose. We cannot allow those who isolate white South Africans into a laager to go unchallenged. If we are truly #Staying, we are staying to fix things.
I do not believe the current approach of the far-right and the far left is going to elevate our collective consciousness and help us deal with the challenges we face. Both the extremists on the left and on the right are giving up on the idea of a unified South Africa. They are leaning into the American model of politics. A model we can all agree is broken and is perhaps beyond repair.
These populists have chosen the language of division and they have fanned the flames of racism. We need a language that unites and not divides. We cannot allow those who isolate white South Africans to convince them that they are being attacked and that they are a diminishing part of our economy. The rhetoric about white monopoly capital being pushed by political parties that seek to be white again, has become regressive and creates a misguided sense of us.
It is now a moment to rally our nation into hope, not into the fears of racial polarisation. It is now the moment we can articulate our goals and every citizen can contribute to them. We must look at our African counterparts and realise that they are not waiting, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal and others are forging ahead. Investment is being attracted and GDP growth is improving. SA is vital to this continent and we had better reform our politics and economy to focus on the future, and the opportunities the continent presents.
We must be able to educate our citizens sufficiently; we need to create safe and diverse spaces for dialogue where no one ever doubts that their contribution is as valued as the next person. We need to create opportunities for prosperity that will negate the seeds of hate being planted, fertilised and watered. We must be able to build one another up. We need to develop a mindset and philosophy that encapsulates that the battle is not against each other, but for each other as people. We must bridge the structural gaps, both in the economy and our education. No circumstances of birth, or biology must determine our trajectory, inclusion or opportunity.
We must build common goals.
Anecdotally, my wife may be a white South African, but her South African connection does not diminish because of the colour of her skin, or the privileges she has because she is white. Her South African obligations and duties equally do not diminish as a result of the colour of her skin. My wife understands, as do I, that she cannot escape the challenges facing this country because she is white. I cannot escape them because I am a prominent figure and I am black. You, dear reader, cannot escape them. This is the complexity of SA. Let’s indeed build One South Africa for all. It’s our identity and we can’t be schizophrenic about it.
We must find our common purpose as a nation, or be forever doomed to the promise by populists who will tell us that to be South African is to build our metaphoric wall, or be borderless and that quick-fix solutions for the economy will make SA great. If we fail at this task, we will become like America: Divided, ungovernable, conquered and vulnerable to foreign influence. Let’s build a decade of hope. DM