IT CAN be argued with many reasons that South Africa is like a moving target. For every one of the things that we have reason to worry and complain about, there seem to be an equal number – possibly getting smaller with each passing week – of reasons to be happy that we’re part of this amazing, resilient nation.
I always remember thinking this way when, several years ago, I literally kneeled down to kiss the ground upon landing at OR Tambo International, having just returned from a business trip to Nigeria. After living in Europe and North America and travelling a bit elsewhere, my short stay in Nigeria was a total shock to my system. I knew then that I would never live there.
Having fought over many years for the liberties and democratic institutions that became real following the dawn of democracy in 1994, we South Africans have every reason to guard these benefits of freedom jealously and to be vigilant, make a noise and complain whenever the people we elected to lead us seem to forget where we come from as a country – and where we do not want to end up.
Madiba made everyone feel at home
The late president Nelson Mandela understood one strategic move that all of his successors seem to have failed to grasp. Given the diverse nation that South Africa is, no one can peacefully govern this country while sitting too far away from the political centre.
So, despite repeated criticism from the far left, his political home, he managed to muster the art of positioning himself in the centre in order to reach out and comfortably embrace constituencies positioned to his right and to his left, making us all feel that we belonged.
Many of us remember how he embraced Christo Brand, his erstwhile prison guard who also regarded him as a father figure, and made him feel that there was a place for him under the South African sun. Some were incensed when, in 1995, he decided to drop in for coffee with Betsie Verwoerd in the whites-only community of Orania. Betsie was the widow of the infamous Hendrik Verwoerd, father of apartheid.
Driven by human values
There might have been a semblance of ideological confusion in all of this, but Nelson Mandelawas a political strategist driven by a set of human values that informed his conduct vis-à-vis those of us inside South Africa, and people in other parts of the world. He knew that the eyes of South Africans and the world were on him for leadership, and he played the part well.
He was firm when needed to defend his human rights-informed principles, but he also knew how to subject himself to the courts of our land when circumstances required him to. This was the case when, clearly unhappily, he nevertheless agreed to go to and explain himself in court when summoned to do so by Judge William de Villiers, in response to a court case by Dr Louis Luyt, the rugby boss in those early days of our democracy.
At the time, Mandela said he did this out of respect for the administration of justice. But those days, it seems, are gone.
Today, many years later, increasing numbers of South Africans have lost both trust and respect for the people entrusted with the privilege to lead us.
Needed: a reliable energy supply
The days when we could show off our passports with our nose in the air when crossing national borders, knowing that customs officials would almost without fail say something good about South Africa’s achievements and about Nelson Mandela, seem to be gone.
Now we never know what to expect to be said to us. The South African exceptionalism is fast receding. The conduct of our leaders and the decisions they take on our behalf seem to put us on the defensive.
All of this is important because as a country desiring to attract larger numbers of tourists, foreign direct investment and general goodwill around the world, we need to have predictable institutions of democracy, stable politics, economic institutions that work – including a reliable energy supply to support existing economic activity and new investments.