THE past ten years or so have been frustrating ones in South African politics and, by extension, for our society. Still blinded by the euphoria of a peaceful dawn from the evil system of apartheid to a young democracy replete with promises, we easily let our collective guard down, placed all our republican fortunes largely in one basket, and believed that all would be a simple walk in the park.
After all, with former president Nelson Mandela at the helm, we could go to sleep at night and be sure the sun would rise again in the morning. Mandela understood the need to keep a balanced eye on black impatience for radical change on the one hand, and white fear on the other, and to keep the two under relative control.
He understood that all South Africans needed assurance that they belonged and that there would be a place under the South African sun for them and their children. This sort of balance required firm leadership, self-control and empathy. It also required an ability to resist pressure from either side of the historic divide, for the sake of us all.
In my eyes, none of the leaders who followed Mandela mastered the art of keeping this fine balance as well as he did.
The transition reloaded
As we speak, South Africa’s political map is being redrawn following recent local government elections. Thankfully, apart from skirmishes here and there, the process has been a relatively peaceful one.
We’re gradually moving out of a post-Mandela era led by leaders who – though no doubt well-meaning – were probably too obsessed with ridding our country of all socio-economic, institutional and legislative vestiges of apartheid to appreciate the need to tread carefully and avoid any semblance of juvenile haste and polarisation.
There were times when their overzealousness led them to forget that we’re still a wounded nation, mired in mistrust and vulnerable to act on careless pronouncements by groups and individuals. The institutional patches established to hold us together still need handling with a combination of care, restraint and transparent balance. In our journey, there is no room for ‘winner takes all’.
Rebuilding a truly non-racial, non-sexist South Africa, in which everyone feels they belong and in which the doors of opportunity can be opened through a good education and hard work, requires leaders with a very long-term view. It is like planting and patiently nurturing a tree that, one day, will provide good shade.
The new era
The only certainty we have today is that our political sands have begun to shift and that they will never settle where they were before, at least not in the same volumes. The next three years leading to the 2019 general elections will be critical in many respects.
First, despite what pundits and commentators say, no one can tell for sure what will happen in 2019. In political terms, three years constitute a very long time. Secondly, how the ANC conducts itself after it wakens from its post-electoral stupor will determine its fortunes and, to some extent, our collective fortunes.
Third, where Zuma goes from here, and if he continues to play a controlling role in the ANC, will also determine our collective fortunes, but more especially those of the ANC. In fact, if Zuma remains powerful, directly or through a proxy in the form of, for instance, his ex-wife Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, that will most probably constitute the final screws needed to consign the ANC to the dustbins of political dominance.
The ANC has a lot of thinking to do; it cannot avoid those difficult conversations forever and survive. Recent electoral outcomes have shown that it could not fool the voters forever and an honest reality check should show that it cannot fool itself forever. Something has to give.
The nascent uncharted political space we find ourselves in is exciting. The South African electorate has finally woken up. It has flexed its muscles and demonstrated the power of its vote. It is unlikely to be taken for a ride again, and this is a good thing.
The new political powerhouses are unlikely to enjoy the blind trust that had been invested in the ANC since the dawn of our democracy. They should never repeat the mistakes made by the ANC and, crucially, they should act for all South Africans, guided by our constitution and our democratic institutions, and knowing that South Africa is a diverse country no single group can lay claim to more than others.
In this new era there should be no room for racial polarisation of our nation for narrow political ends. We should have tolerance only for leaders who will respect the need to keep us together as a nation, irrespective of the challenges and the temptations. That is the only way we can look other nations in the eye and reclaim our leadership role in matters relating to human and other rights on the continent and elsewhere, and walk the high streets of the world with our heads held high again.