Imagine arriving at a familiar traffic intersection – one you have been driving through every day on your way to and from work – to find motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians going in all directions, hooters blaring, without anyone respecting the signals, despite the traffic lights being in good working condition.
Or, for those who have travelled to places like Mumbai and Lagos, imagine yourself having to drive a car for the first time in the unfamiliar traffic chaos of those cities, thrown out of your relatively orderly streets of central Cape Town or Johannesburg.
Traffic lights impose a semblance of order in an environment; where absent, chaos could easily prevail; chaos that often leads to serious injuries and death. In a normal world, the mere presence of well-functioning traffic lights offers a level of predictability, reassuring motorists approaching and entering intersections that they will go in and emerge on the other side in one piece.
In such situations, road users know that others will stick to their assigned turns and engage only as signalled.
To function in relative harmony, human societies also need all forms of traffic lights. They come in the form of constitutions; rules and regulations; bylaws; value and moral codes; rules of the road; memoranda of understanding; terms & conditions, etc.
To ensure that everyone conducts themselves within the prescripts of such human conventions – because that is what they are – institutions like the courts, traffic departments, police departments, and so on get created to administer penalties to those who fail to act within the agreed prescripts.
How the nation got it together
In the early 1990s, leaders from various South African political parties came together and negotiated a new set of rules of engagement. This process was undertaken to bury apartheid chaos and to forge a better shared future for us, rich in our diversity.
They were forced to do this because we had reached a stalemate of sorts. On the one hand, those who were managing the apartheid machinery grudgingly came to accept that they had become a pariah in the community of nations and that apartheid was no longer economically and politically viable. The cold war had come to an end and those who supported them, who did so mostly for geostrategic reasons, no longer saw the need to continue standing behind them.
On the other hand, a basket of anti-apartheid formations, led by the late president Nelson Mandela and the ANC, had also come to realise that their guerrilla armies would never win a conventional war against the erstwhile South African Defence Force, arguably the best equipped and trained national military in Africa until then.
The negotiations culminated in a brand new national consensus, with all participants having given up some of their expectations in exchange for gains in other areas. No one came out an outright winner. Such was not the aim. We ended with a new, world celebrated constitution and a bill of rights.
Finally, all South Africans, irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, political allegiance and economic standing, were guaranteed a place under the South African sun. We also had a new national flag and what some described as a clumsy patchwork of a national anthem to show for our efforts.
To give life to the constitution, and armed with the knowledge of what we’re capable of, a number of independent democratic institutions – the so-called Chapter 9 institutions – were created. Together with the constitution, these institutions were to become the traffic lights of post-apartheid South Africa, the glue that would hold our nation together. They provided fresh ground for the rebuilding to begin.
What lay ahead was never going to be a walk in the park.
Old wounds reopened
It is for this reason that increased numbers of us are disappointed, even angered, when we see our national togetherness placed in jeopardy by leaders who seem bent on undoing the glue that was created to hold us together. Their conduct has opened old wounds we believed were beginning to heal.
In our frustration and anger, we’re now being pushed into familiar racial laagers, hurling racial insults from across old divides. Treated as foreigners in their own land and fearing for the future of their children, some have lost hope in the nation-building project and are beginning to look for homes in foreign lands.
If they leave, they will take their skills and wealth with them, adding to a quiet, yet growing, exodus of South African millionaires whose taxes will no longer contribute to making government grants viable.
For our nation-building project to succeed, we need ethical leaders who, through their conduct, will lead the way in safeguarding the glue that holds South Africa together. Currently we do not have such leaders.
The rest of the world will also not trust us as reliable investment partners if we sign rules of engagement we end up breaking at the first possible opportunity. Rating agencies can also not be blamed if they don’t take government’s promise seriously to deliver on the nine-point plan announced by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to prevent South Africa from being given junk investment rate status.
Much is at stake.