A sense of history


Leaders must see bigger picture

A show of unity by Lekota and Zuma in tackling problems such as xenophobia can have a major effect on South Africa

In one of the hottest summers on record, South Africa’s political temperature looks set to soar to equally unprecedented levels during the months leading up to voting day. Some observers worry that election fever in the year the country’s ruling party confronts its former supporters at the polls might provoke much more than sweat and tears.
What 2009 is going to test most tellingly in the run up to the election is South Africa’s commitment to the values enshrined in its universally admired constitution: does this society’s laudable legal bible reflect who we actually are or will its provisions go straight over our alice bands and bald patches once subjected to pressure? For example, if our next president, facing a criminal trial, negotiates a likely deal with the NPA, the country’s entire judicial system will be undermined and a wicked precedent set for all time.
Too many crucial political matters are coming to the boil simultaneously. At the same time as the ANC – once notable for its unifying structures – pursues a frightening purge known in some quarters as the country’s second transition, simmering outrage is about to explode both at home and abroad in response to the Zimbabwe government’s disregard for human rights, the cholera epidemic’s continuing death toll, and South Africa’s seeming indifference to the plight of its embattled neighbour.
As if these daunting challenges weren’t enough to try us to the hilt at a time when the global economy is apparently going bust, the scary spectre of xenophobic violence – which last year exposed our hard-heartedness for all to see – threatens to flare up again, especially in makeshift communities where the poorest South Africans struggle to survive alongside mainly Zimbabwean refugees.
One way to curb the harsh albeit mostly latent instincts like intolerance and violence that a majority of us inherited from apartheid (directly and through warped parental attitudes) is to preserve a sense of history in daily life as well as in the nation’s museums. Dark memories of electioneering by way of civil warfare in the hostels of Soweto, for example, are little more than a dozen years behind us. Glimpses of flying furniture in recent political meetings are a warning of the prejudice lurking beneath public platitudes, just as the tell-tale common incidents of violence later labelled xenophobia (as if a sudden, hitherto unknown fever with a complicated name had just broken out in our midst) ought to have flagged South Africans’ rampant fear of foreigners. Xenophobia is certainly a virus of the mind, just like racism, but, unlike more familiar forms of racism, our leaders seem to think it flared and died in 2008 instead of recognizing it as endemic and trying to tackle it.
Suggestion: A nationwide campaign showing that the white-on-black racism which caused so much suffering under apartheid is similar to the daily resentment many South Africans feel towards Zimbabwean refugees. For that matter, South Africa’s best kept secret is the black majority’s often glaring prejudice towards its white brethren. Apartheid taught us the full range of racism, all variants being characterized by intolerance. Since the current vexed electioneering will only accentuate the fact that we are divided along ethnic lines in who we vote for, thus reinforcing dissimilarity rather than brotherhood, now is a good time to kick off a vital campaign to promote tolerance.
Neither Jacob Zuma nor Mosiuoa Lekota appear to be anti-white in discourse or instinct (Zuma being colour-blind reputedly, while Lekota’s hero in the struggle was Afrikaner priest Beyers Naude) so there is reason to hope the two are tolerant as individuals. Perhaps they, among other national leaders, can be persuaded to tackle an anticipated resurgence of xenophobic violence before it breaks out again and shames us all anew.
Like the urgent need for South Africa to show real concern for the multi-faceted tragedy going down in Zimbabwe, our leaders should put aside their differences in order to counter xenophobia together rather than ignoring it because they are too busy scoring points against each other. Their unity in combating a critical national malaise would in itself send out a strong message.
A sense of history will also remind those – including would-be emigrants – who see South Africa’s currently alarming political rivalry as retrogressive that Nelson Mandela tried to help us conquer our self-loathing and hatred of each other but he could never have provided redemption from the sins of the past. Like the good father he certainly has been to all South Africans, Madiba showed us that we were not only loveable regardless of ethnicity but capable as a nation of fair play. Not even a saint could have turned a police state into a flawless democracy in under two decades. And let’s not forget that human nature at its most reckless has shown time and again that the abused often becomes the abuser. This is why there remains, inevitably, much healing work for us to do ourselves despite Madiba’s achievements.
An awareness of Zimbabwe’s history under Robert Mugabe might equally remind us of a number of familiar issues. His country supported South Africa’s liberation struggle – like Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania did to their cost when the oppressor struck back. As a result, apartheid helped to create Mugabe the monster by bombing his air force and unleashing assorted acts of sabotage during his paranoid early years at the helm.
Our fortunes as well as our history are indelibly linked with Zimbabwe’s. The crisis in Mugabeland is daily spilling into our own country. It will continue to damage us unless South African leaders act as decisively and wisely as they did 20 years ago in dismantling the Nationalist Party dictatorship. Our most pressing interests have merged so closely with those of Zimbabweans – cause and effect being intertwined, not least in the way the South African government has inadvertently enabled Zimbabwe’s implosion, for whatever reason – that our leaders must focus urgently on a durable solution.
The incoming South African government, if not the existing one, ought to be able to put aside positions of pride such as anger at Western support for the former Zimbabwean liberator’s opposition, the MDC; determination to be right in respect of previous, failed attempts at intervention; and reluctance to concede the redundancy of old liberation heroes. Not because it is South Africa’s responsibility to solve Zimbabwe’s problems but because South Africa needs a resolution for its own sake. If our leaders fail to take up the cause of Zimbabweans, the West will continue breathing down their necks because what they will be showing the world is that African solutions to African problems are as intractable as the problems themselves.


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