AT THE dawn of our democracy, soon after the formal end of apartheid and under the leadership of the inimitable Nelson Mandela, we, the people of South Africa, made a number of promises to ourselves, to our fellow Africans on the rest of the continent and to the diaspora, as well as to the rest of the world.
We promised to cut ties with our past and, for humanity’s sake, to use lessons from our own past and that of others in Africa and around the world to become better people, a better country, a more solid nation – united in our rich diversity – and to lead where others hesitated or failed.
We enshrined all of these promises and the values that underpinned them in a brand new Constitution and Bill of Rights, hoping that all future leaders of our country would constantly refer to them whenever in doubt, to make sure they never led our country off course and over the precipice.
Now, it all seems to have been nothing but a collective act of naiveté.
No doubt, the sceptics were many in those early days, both at home and abroad. Doubtful that it would ever work, many South Africans left the country to establish new homes in places like Canada, New Zealand, the USA, the UK, Holland, and elsewhere.
The cynics among them are said to have preferred to sit it out from a safe distance and wait for the imagined and what they saw as the inevitable implosion. Back in South Africa, some of us accused those who departed of having betrayed us at best and, at worst, of having left because they were racists who couldn’t stand the prospect of living in a country governed by blacks.
Whatever their reasons, it was important for us to make project New South Africa succeed so they could never say “we told you so”!
A great deal has happened since then. We have gone through two elected presidents and an acting one, following Mandela’s departure. While economic performance was good during the Mbeki years, buttressed by sound policies at home and in line with a generally robust global economic climate, the ethical and moral decline did not take long to begin.
Few will forget that it was during Mbeki’s era that the country saw irrational presidential pride stand in the way of the provision of crucial anti-retroviral medication for hundreds of thousands of HIV-Aids patients, many of whom subsequently died from related, preventable opportunistic illnesses.
Also during Mbeki’s reign, the harmless Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was given a presidential cold shoulder when Mbeki avoided meeting him, reportedly to please the paranoid Chinese.
The Dalai Lama had already been to South Africa during Mandela’s presidency. Despite reported Chinese pressure to stop him, Mandela went ahead and met him in public, even taking him to the picturesque Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town for a walk and photo opportunity.
Nothing happened to South Africa because of this visit.
The Dalai Lama would be denied entry visas to South Africa on two further occasions after Mandela’s departure, first during the leadership of acting president Kgalema Motlanthe and secondly, after Jacob Zuma came to power. Chinese pressure was reported to have played a role in both instances.
It should be noted that the Tibetan spiritual leader has been living in India since 1959, where he fled with thousands other Tibetan refugees following Chinese occupation and a systematic cultural clampdown. India remains an active member of the BRICS formation with China, Brazil, Russia and South Africa.
It has never been threatened by China because of the presence of the Dalai Lama on its soil. If anything, the Dalai Lama example offers a good illustration of lack of leadership backbone on the part of all of Mandela’s successors to date.
It was also during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency that a respected national director of public prosecutions (NDPP) was suspended for having refused to bow to political pressure – reportedly at the behest of the president – to stop arresting a hugely corrupt national police commissioner who had been captured by the criminal underworld.
The corrupt national police commissioner was a close friend of the president. Fortunately, the prosecutorial wheel was already in motion when the NDPP was suspended, so his suspension did not save the police commissioner from the long arm of the law.
The same NDPP was later formally fired by acting president Motlanthe – who had been charged with clearing the way for the arrival of Mbeki’s successor into high office. As what goes around always comes around, Mbeki had been unceremoniously removed from office by his own party, following murky internal party squabbles.
But even while still under suspension, the same NDPP refused to bow to political pressure in exchange, ostensibly, for reinstatement into his job. For this, he would have to promise not to go after the next president, one who would come into office constantly glancing over his shoulder and already on the run from the long arm of the law.
The ongoing radical state capture and obstinate presence in powerful political offices of a bunch of hugely discredited men and women – despite all evidence that they should no longer be in the positions they occupy – is indicative of the extent of alienation from our country’s post-apartheid founding values.
As a result, and because of the absence of a strong, uniting and values-driven leader, South Africans find themselves pitted against one another for all the wrong reasons.
On the one side are those who defend the violators of our laws and founding values, despite ample evidence of wrongdoing by the latter. On the other hand, there is a growing chorus that should never be allowed to die of South Africans who have understood the need to reach across many historic divides, the only way they can remain united, to look the monsters in the eye and to push back.
It may be a matter of time, but the people of South Africa will survive even this, for this country is worth all the pain it will take to liberate it for the second time.