A stranger in strange land
What does it mean to be a South African, and where are we in democratic terms, now that we’ve lost our glamour?
Now that our government has revealed its contempt for the people of South Africa in matters ranging from HIV/Aids denialism and apparently unstoppable crime to the shameful Selebi affair as well as our country’s role in Zimbabwe’s unresolved crisis – to name but a few of the state’s assaults on our fragile democracy – we need to strike back.
A recently invigorated public discourse in both Johannesburg and Cape Town reflects the growing belief among those who have not yet voted with their feet that enough is enough. With scant prospect of a better ANC government waiting in the wings, it is up to those citizens who feel strongly enough about the country’s slide into authoritarianism and indifference to speak up in anticipation of national elections next year.
In one of a series of public debates supported by Independent Newspapers and the Economic Justice Initiative at the University of Cape Town recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted with despair that young South Africans were pledging to kill for ANC president Jacob Zuma. He told a packed auditorium, “We have to remind some in our country that there are those in Zimbabwe who have been ready to kill for Mr Mugabe. See what happens!
“They (the ANC’s Youth League) speak about a revolution,” he continued. “Now, I don’t know what that refers to but, whatever it is, that revolution is not going to be sustained and preserved by intemperate, almost inane utterances.
“That revolution, the dream that is South Africa, the promise that is South Africa, that is going to be preserved when you and I are vigilant, you and I preserve freedom, you and I stand up for justice…you and I say, hey, our people did not shed blood for nothing.”
Businesswoman and former University of Cape Town vice chancellor Mamphele Ramphele, sharing the same platform, said that both Zimbabwe and South Africa had cultures of personalised politics that invested too much power in leaders. “We are messing up big time is some areas,” she said. “The limits of impunity are within our power to set. The question is whether we are prepared to do so before it is too late.”
Reminding a packed auditorium that the limits of tyrants are set by the level of tolerance among those subjected to tyranny, Ramphele said, “In a sense the people of Zimbabwe waited too long before challenging Mugabe’s tyranny. It was a case of for whom the bell tolls. When it tolled for the 20 000 young people of Matabeleland in the 1980s, many kept their heads down. When it tolled for the white farmers, many even cheered for the false dawn. Now that the bell is tolling for each and every Zimbabwean who might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is no place to hide.”
Academic Wilmot James, another member of the panel, said he was tired of the “smug arrogance” of the South African government on the Zimbabwe issue. It was “hugging and coddling a dictator” for reasons that defied rationality and diplomatic progress.
My role on the same panel was to describe the psyche of Robert Mugabe: from the weedy, friendless and bookish boy, who hated his absent father but shunned conflict and wanted to help others, to the world’s most loathsome dictator. Understanding Mugabe’s mindset and motives helps to shed light on others among us with dangerous propensities.
Whether or not insight into the twisted nature of Zimbabwe’s president offers possible solutions to the current impasse in Zimbabwe via psycho-diplomacy – as I believe it might – the complexity of the tyrant’s wounded psyche does expose some of Africa’s leadership woes.
84-year-old Robert Mugabe’s love for Mother England, for example – despite what he bellows to the contrary – is transparent in the Savile Row-style suits both he and his cabinet wear, his passion for cricket, and the admiration of the British Royal Family recently expressed to me by Mugabe himself, with tears gleaming in his lonely eyes.
His childhood in a Catholic mission run by white priests imbued Mugabe with the idea that the English gentleman represented the highest stage of human development, which resulted in him disowning his African heritage. The Zimbabwe president’s quintessentially English identity, never more obvious than in his recent, sixth inauguration in a stiff ceremony featuring the incongruous white wigged, red-robed judges of the colonial era, hides Mugabe’s deep sense of inferiority and a disdain for his own people.
Mamphele Ramphele had much to say on the subject of the self-hatred a man like Mugabe typifies. Citing the root causes of Africa’s culture of impunity in denial of the ghosts of our past, she told the UCT meeting that Africans needed “a much more systematic exorcism than we have permitted ourselves to undergo”.
Racist scars have left the continent deeply wounded, she explained. “The equation of blackness with inferiority has created a deep sense of self-loathing that comes to the fore each time one is confronted by this image of the self that threatens whatever one is striving towards. How else can one explain how “war veterans” can mistake ordinary Zimbabweans as enemies to be maimed or killed with the brutality that is being visited on them across the country? How do we as South Africans explain the viciousness with which we attacked fellow Africans for the crime of being foreign and black?”
The strange psychological realities behind Robert Mugabe’s anti-colonial mask and some of the contradictory actions of our own government need to be acknowledged by all concerned. “The notion of young South Africans publicly pledging to ‘kill for Zuma’ is a symptom of extreme woundedness,” says Ramphele. “What kind of democracy can be built on such a foundation?”