TWENTY-three years ago we South Africans made a promise. Fresh from the ravages of apartheid, still dazed but sure of what we no longer wanted, we joined hands and looked up at former president Nelson Mandela in collective awe as he told the world on our behalf and with our tacit consent that “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another”.
It all felt right. Some of us even wondered why we had not thought of doing it before. During those early days, our yesterday was still an immediate past whose macabre smell was frighteningly fresh and near. We felt it could almost return in a flash if we took the wrong step, pressed the wrong button, or said the wrong thing.
But, except for a small minority of doubters, we were excited at the prospect of a new, open country of equal opportunity for all. The whole world was watching us, especially the African diasporas from across the globe; our moment was also theirs. We owed it to them not to falter, to get it right.
The future seemed so promising
During those early days, we could almost close our eyes and see the country we sought; one in which there would be equality at all levels and everyone would, for the first time in our fractured history, share the same national symbols.
The long, history-making, winding queues of South African voters of all backgrounds buttressed our new beginning. There would no longer be discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, creed, etc. And we proclaimed all of that loudly to the rest of the world.
And, to be sure that the world would hold us to our promise and that we would not backtrack, we agreed to enshrine all the new freedoms and rights in a Bill of Rights and a much-celebrated constitution that continues to be dubbed one of the most progressive in the world – which it is.
We promised to be a better country, to break with the past, and to lead by example, especially in Africa.
As if sent by the gods to ensure that we crossed the troubled waters of time without looking back, Nelson Mandela had stood up, raised his hand, and offered to hold our collective hand. He led from the front, mindful of the unwavering glare of all South Africans and of the world; he understood what his leadership represented and did his utmost to start living the aspirant values of the nascent South Africa, our new Republic.
Like no other leader before him, he extended his embrace to his left and to his right, reaching out to friends and former foes alike and drawing as many as possible to the safer middle ground, away from the incendiary right-wing and left-wing extremes.
During his time, those who remained obstinately in the extreme right and left fringes were a relative minority.
The leaders we need
With hindsight, the early negotiators of our transition did not, regrettably, place enough emphasis on a master plan for later economic transformation for a more inclusive economy. But I have no doubt they all knew that this would have to be managed at some point in the future – possibly by the next generation of leaders after the political waters would have calmed down a bit.
Their key task at the time was to steer the country away from an almost certain civil war to a place where all South Africans would see the attractiveness of shared nation-building project. Those who stand up today accusing Mandela of having given up too much and having sold us out are blinded by ignorance and short memories.
The task of economic transformation was never going to be easy, but one that would require wise leaders with a long-term view; not ones who would be driven by emotion and short-term victories at the expense of the bigger goal of achieving lasting socio-economic and political cohesion.
Such leaders would need to have a temperament underpinned by patience, but patience with a clear plan and an idea of what the end-game would look like. They would also have to understand and accept that the end-game would not necessarily be realised in their lifetime; that they simply formed part of a long chain of South Africans called upon from time to time to help this country march to a better future for all.
No individual leader would be bigger than the cause, and none would own and privatise it for themselves and their families.
Importantly, the leaders we need today are ones who will take us all with them without seeking to divide us again on grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on for short-term political gains.
Selling our soul to please despots
Today, our collective dream is being deferred by leaders who, to be accepted by despots on the continent and for the pleasure of brandishing middle fingers to the West, have seen fit to oppose UN resolutions seeking to protect the rights of LGBTI communities; rights that are enshrined in our constitution.
As we speak, they have initiated a process to remove our country from the jurisdiction of a court mandated to prosecute proven human rights abusers; all this just so that they can dine and dance with abusers of human rights in Africa, irrespective of their acts.
Who stands to benefit from this madness? Our former liberators have either become complicit in acts driven by greed to weaken our democratic institutions or they have fallen silent, afraid to speak out for fear of marginalisation. Our dream is being deferred; our promises are being broken; our nation brand vision is being distorted.