AS WE were preparing to land in Geneva on Monday afternoon, my thoughts were racing all over the place. I found myself trying hard to block them from returning to a conversation I eavesdropped on, over the weekend.
It was on the terrace of a café somewhere in Cape Town; I was sitting on my own, having coffee and going through my weekly papers. Two ladies were seated at a table right next to me, most certainly unaware that they were speaking rather loudly and that their conversation interested me.
I pricked up my ears when one of them wondered loudly how South Africa and her people would adjust to the prospects of a party other than the ANC – or even a coalition of parties without the ANC – governing the country after the 2019 elections.
With hindsight, I doubt that the ladies delved deep enough into how far-reaching that question was. As we landed, my thoughts kept racing backwards and forwards; backwards to the ladies’ conversation and the fast-moving socio-political sands in South Africa, and forwards to the snowy beauty we were flying over as we approached Geneva International Airport and the 2017 World Communications Forum, of course – my principal reason for being here.
One of our key panel discussions at the World Communication Forum, a conversation I shall be part of, looks at the management of country brand images and how to build the tools to manage country brands. It is in this context that I kept trying to imagine the evolving image of South Africa over the past 23 years and what lessons our country could offer to others, or take from them.
The ANC’s bittersweet political longevity
Let’s get this straight. The African National Congress has been in power for a very long time in South Africa. It is entrenched in our national psyche. Millions of so-called born-frees have either reached tertiary level studies or started working as adults while the ANC has been governing our country.
Some have even become parents of second generation born-frees. To many of them, and certainly to many older people, it is hard to imagine anyone else running South Africa. Opposition parties running a province here or a metro there are yet to make a mental impact big enough to be considered a serious possible nationwide alternative; but we’re fast getting there.
It’s almost like those poor Zimbabweans and, alongside them, Ugandans, Congolese, Angolans, Guineans, and so many others on the continent who were born and grew up under the rule of the same despots or parties. To them, it’s a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to life, irrespective of whether the devil they know keeps pulling out a nail from their fingers now and again to prove who’s boss, or keeps stealing their livestock for his own pleasure.
Given our history, the ANC probably needed to be given enough time to introduce a raft of democrat legislation that would undo the damage of apartheid and effectively nail the new era onto our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
But too many years in power for any bunch of politicians is never good for any country claiming to be a democracy. The ANC has benefited from too many easy electoral victories, too much power and unquestioned loyalty for far too long. None of this is good for the governing party and, no doubt, none of it is good for the constitutional democracy many of us still yearn South Africa to remain.
Proof is all around us to see. It oozes daily from our national pores. If none of what has already been exposed is convincing enough for you, just dig in the ground under your feet, no need for a spade or other hard tool; dig with your bare hands and you are sure to find something hidden in there that will make you break out in hysterical laughter.
Desperation reaches critical levels
By the way things have been going of late, and given all the maggots that have been crawling out from seemingly overcrowded areas for fresh air, South Africans must start mentally preparing themselves for a change in national political leadership, come 2019.
It’s still far off in political terms, of course, but every month leading to it promises to be replete with revelations and contestations of all kinds. The desperation has reached critical levels and much is at stake.
The current generation of ANC leaders forgot the reasons why their party was given blind trust by millions of South Africans to make our country a better place to live for all its people. Pick your combination; they are too angry, too narrow-minded, too greedy, too captured, too incompetent, too uncaring, too arrogant, too tribalist, and too incapable of marrying African aspirations with the demands of a modern constitutional democracy.
South Africa can never be led by anyone with a huge chip on his/her shoulder, irrespective of ethnic make-up or ideological affiliation. It can also never be led harmoniously by a bunch of people who believe – when it suits them – that everything coming from the West is bad for Africa.
None of this, however, means that we should shun socio-economic transformation that takes into account many years of deliberate exclusion of black African citizens of the country from the social, political, and economic mainstream.
Whoever stands to take over from the ANC shouldn’t fool themselves that they can ditch the correction of historic exclusions, but they should carry out the task driven by the need to create a truly inclusive society that will leave no part of our population feeling that it doesn’t belong to this great country.
Future leaders of South Africa could be of any racial background and any sexual orientation, as long as they act within the established norms of our constitutional order. These are the only standards according to which we should judge them, or kick them out.