History is a useful teacher. The impunity and absence of consequence in governance today breeds the rising spectre of a fascism and banditry that threatens to catapult us into the chaos of our divided past. The tale of two eras of history.
Let us turn back the clock 34 years. It was 29 April 1987. A different world. But where leadership mattered as much as it does today.
It was the cold winter of discontent. The country was a seething mass of writhing tension. Twenty-thousand railway workers had gone on strike. Unexpected. Fuelled by desperation. A frontal assault on the apartheid state. The bursting tension ruptured into the streets of the metropolis. Thousands of workers congregated at Cosatu House. Now a fiery centre of resistance. As the security forces set up a perimeter, it became a war zone.
Staring down to the streets I felt a rising tide of anger. The police had painted an AWB sign on one of their vehicles. A symbol of right-wing fascism and a product of the undeclared war on us, orchestrated from deep within the State Security Council that now governed the country.
It was a dangerous time. Apartheid assassins deep inside the state were plotting deadly plans and incursions against us. Fear gripped the country. But defiant courage was rising. Galvanised by the atrocity of apartheid brutality and corruption. The 11th floor of Cosatu House, our headquarters, in downtown Jeppe in Johannesburg, was a hive of bustling activism.
On that fateful night, they broke down doors floor by floor. Organisers and staff spreadeagled, hands in the air, cutting an eerie and iconic picture of the “dark night, long knives”. Not dissimilar to what we face today.
But that time we were more organised. Our strength was not in offices. Not in leaders like Elijah Barayi, Cyril Ramaphosa or me. We were just the lightning rod of a deeply entrenched defiant resistance, its roots deep in the trenches of our mines, factories, shops and hotels. Its hands embracing the fiery cauldron of struggle that went beyond the factory floor. We averted a bloodbath.
But a week later, on 7 May, they struck our nerve centre in the dark of night, exploding two massive bombs in the basement of Cosatu headquarters.
The intention was clear. Destroy the enemies’ infrastructure. Paralyse its nerve centre. Cut its supply lines. Sow confusion and fear. Drive a propaganda war that we were a centre of terrorism and extreme violence. We were actually accused on state media of housing a bomb factory. The environment was one within which a heavily armed white right-wing could feel justified to unleash havoc against us across the land. The country was “laagered” again.
The next morning the security forces cordoned off our building. We were stopped from entering. But they had also arrived with a warrant to seize the latest copies of Cosatu News. A furious argument, but I chose the battle would be another day.
It came sooner than we had expected.
On Monday, 10 August, the first official day of the industrial action, an estimated 340,000 people came out on strike, which represented more than 70% of all black coal and gold miners.
The response was brutal and violent.
We had shaken the very foundations of the apartheid state. The war had escalated. We were the principal enemy.
Why did we succeed? We had leadership united behind a vision that embraced the hopes, aspirations and dreams of our people.
We had a leadership that fought in dangerous trenches, not for enrichment of themselves, but for the pursuit of a better life for all our people.
We spurned the demagoguery that today hides the plundering greed of predatory elites behind a veil of left-wing rhetoric.
And we had leaders who understood that power derives from the mandate of our people, not from “big men” in dark corridors buying power with bags of stolen cash.
We are at a crossroads as a country.
And I fail to see how a manipulative nexus of public and private predatory elites can hold us to ransom. And that it sits like a cancer in the ranks of the political movement that spearheaded our liberation struggle. And that we feel powerless to do anything about it.
There are stark choices facing us today that require the boldness and courage of 34 years ago. A historical duty to end the impunity that reigns in our beautiful country.
To bring us back to the path of the fundamental transformation we need.
To heal the wounds we all carry. Whether those are wounds of racial superiority or inferiority.
To build a meaningful dialogue that bridges the chasm of poverty, inequality and wealth.
To involve all our people, like we have done so often in the past.
And to recommit to the dreams enshrined in our Freedom Charter and the Constitution we so painstakingly crafted in 1994.
As Mandela said, “I have become more convinced than ever that the real makers of history are the ordinary men and women of our country; their participation in every decision about the future is the only guarantee of true democracy and freedom.”
Let the leaders entrusted by our people and Constitution rise to the challenge.
Heal our country.
Root out the corruption that has mercilessly sought to subvert the struggles and sacrifices of generations of patriotic South Africans who gave more than their lives for the freedom we celebrate today. DM
Bumblebees can fly higher than Mount Everest.
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