Ahead of Nelson Mandela’s retirement from politics, many people in South Africa and around the world were worried that South Africa would regress following his departure, as his successors progressively undid the sterling work he had done keeping a very divided country together.
Some even dared to suggest that the moment Mandela died, the ANC would begin revealing its true colours.
I, like many others, loudly ridiculed such unfounded fears, insisting Mandela was part of a collective and that every public stance he took on hot issues would have been canvassed in the ANC’s leadership structures first.
Mandela knew how to lead while being a team player at the same time. He had a vision of South Africa that to this day remains reflected in our country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.
When he insisted on staying in office for just one term, I also thought it was a good thing, and a great example to set in a continent where despots remain in office for decades – during which they assume the role of state institutions, suppress media and other freedoms, enrich themselves and those close to them, and generally create a difficult environment for opposition politics, civil society and other independent voices.
But I was also of the view, when Thabo Mbeki first assumed office, that Mandela had done his part assuring all South Africans that there would always be a place for them and their families for generations to come, under the South African sun.
Accordingly, I believed that, the issue of nationhood and belonging having been sorted by Mandela, Mbeki was correct to open another chapter on our journey to true nationhood. A less endearing one, but necessary, as we were united in our diversity.
I applauded when he showed courage and reminded us that we still had a country with two economies, one white and rich; the other black and poor, and that there would not be lasting national harmony if we allowed ‘Mandelaphoria’ to make us believe that all was good, that we were all living in an idyllic park where access was no longer determined on the basis of race, gender and other forms of historic discrimination.
Hindsight is 20/20
Looking back at the journey we’ve travelled, it now seems it was premature to believe the assurances enshrined in our country’s founding documents, buttressed by the credible Mandela seal, would be immune to the test of time and any attempt at undoing them.
It should have been safe to believe that all parties who signed those agreements arising from the multi-party negotiations that, in turn, gave birth to our current Constitutional order did so in good faith, believing that while no one walked away from the talks with everything they had wished for, it would all be for the good of the country.
The work required from then onwards would require time; but it would also require ethical, honest, dedicated, and mature leadership, armed with high levels of emotional intelligence.
Sadly, blinded by the euphoria of the time, it now seems we failed to take the teachings of Mandela, and the memories of many other South Africans we should never forget, along with us. Those South Africans were, to use the terminology we’ve become accustomed to, black, white, Indian, and coloured, and did not come from one political party alone. The colours that paved the journey we have travelled over the decades are a lot more than gold, green and black. Many turned their backs on families, churches, and other communities to embrace others because they had the foresight to know that divisions were unsustainable.
Others refused to serve in the apartheid army when it was most dangerous to take such stances. They paid with their freedom and, in some cases, with their lives.
The list of such South Africans, from all backgrounds, is long. A visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg should probably be made mandatory for the ill-informed racist opportunists of our time.
Party versus Country
Now, in hindsight, I believe Mandela left too early. He should have stayed to serve two terms, as allowed by the Constitution, and continued to work on cementing our historic divisions.
And Mbeki, in turning his page on the need to grow our economy, which he did very well, should have kept the spirit of his ‘I’m an African’ story and the national unity theme alive throughout his two terms in office – ensuring that all South Africans walked the journey with him, united in their diversity and yet working towards the same goal of healing the wounds of apartheid.
He could have begun, then, to canvass views from around the country on how best to deal with the thorny matter of land ownership while also keeping our nation together. That would have prevented this hot legacy issue from falling into the laps of hot-headed and racist political opportunists who either have no sense of history, or do not have a care in the world regarding where their racist drive will lead us all.
They admire the leaders of places like Zimbabwe and Venezuela, while also pretending not to see the ravages wrought to those countries – right in front of our eyes – by people leading only through infantile emotion and the fear of losing political power.
In order to avoid this, in South Africa – and while discussing what else our Constitution can do for us – we should start conversations about the need to separate party presidency from state presidency. Recent experience has shown that the needs of our country will always differ from the needs of any political party, no matter how noble it appears when it first assumes power.
We should also talk about introducing new checks and balances to create more effective institutional buffers between the interests of South Africa and those of political formations assuming public office.
Otherwise we remain at the mercy of unpredictable men and women in power.