• Monday, June 24, 2024
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BusinessDay

South Africa – The moment of truth is here

South Africans vote in most competitive election since apartheid ended

“The election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 marked a transition from a racist apartheid aberration to a nation with the institutions and aspirations of a democracy.”

On Wednesday, May 29, a few days from now, it will be the ‘Moment of Truth’ in South Africa.

On that day, elections will be held across the land to determine who will form the next national government. Those elections will be the most crucial elections in the country’s history, for many reasons.

The psychology of Nigerian-South African interaction has always been fraught.

After the initial chip-on-the-shoulder resentment against brash young Nigerians who had never experienced the indignities of racial oppression and who flocked to newly liberated Johannesburg after 1994 to have fun and make money, there came a more sinister xenophobia driven by primordial sentiments stoked among the masses of poor blacks.

Living in miserable, crime-infested townships, different from the dream of democratic paradise they had been promised by Mandela, it was easy for them to see other Africans living in their midst as the enemy.

The lone consistent public voice against xenophobia has been someone who might have been expected to gain the most from aligning with it: Julius Malema, rabble-rouser, ‘Marxist’, leader of Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF).

But South African xenophobia is merely a great people letting themselves down, hopefully temporarily, and should not provoke other Africans to leave South Africans to ‘hoist on their own petard’ as they approach this defining moment in their nationhood.

The election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 marked a transition from a racist apartheid aberration to a nation with the institutions and aspirations of a democracy.

The guiding ideology of the new nation had been mapped out by the elders of the African National Congress, a left-wing group of predominantly African people mixed with like-minded people of European and Asian races, through several decades of struggle.

Their aspiration was to build a nation where people irrespective of race would have an equal stake and be able to pursue a life of purpose and happiness—a rainbow nation. Nelson Mandela was the embodiment of that ‘Rainbow Nation’.

Thirty years on, the vision of a ‘Rainbow Nation’, if not exactly in tatters, is severely dented. Harsh reality has supervened, with a troubled economy, and an inefficient government-owned electricity company that neo-Apartheid romanticists are happy to point out worked much better when it was in white hands.

There is, too, the phenomenon of ‘State Capture’, and a party-centred patronage system undermining the work of government. Young black South Africans have the highest unemployment rate in the world. Very little, it seems, has changed, economically, for them, since 1984.

In these landmark elections, there are the players, and there are the issues.

Who, or what, is South Africa?

Is it a multiracial liberal ‘Western democracy’, economically enmeshed with, and beholden to, the Western world? Or is it a proud autochthonous African country with a large population of Europeans and Asians who have become ‘indigenes’, with all the rights?

It is a painful coming of age decision, because South Africa cannot be both.

There is a struggle afoot to disencumber South Africa from mainstream African history and aspirations. David Cameron and other Conservative Europeans have recruited one of the best PR firms in the world to help the ‘white’ Democratic Alliance make a final grab at power.

There is a famous ‘shock and awe’ advert they are using to campaign. In it, the nation’s flag is burnt, and then renewed. It is not idle symbolism.

Among the whites sheltering under the Rainbow Nation are many who genuinely want to blend in and flow as Africans.

There are also, sadly, East European extremists and neo-Nazis. The Polish fascist Janusz Walus, who shot anti-Apartheid black activist Chris Hani dead, has just been freed early from prison to live out a life of comfort in the new South Africa he did not want to happen.

He and his ilk make no secret of their hatred and disdain for ‘black’ aspirations. Yet they carry South African passports.

When President Ramaphosa, as a show of an African Freedom Fighter’s commitment to justice everywhere, took the Israeli government to the ICJ for genocide in Gaza, many in the white demographic, which disdains anything African, queried the temerity of a ‘local’ leader, drawing the ire of Israel’s main backer, the USA, and risking economic punishment.

They missed the point that the liberation struggle that brought the ANC to power was not about putting food before principle.

South Africa will elect a parliament next week. The majority of that parliament will select a president.

And now the players

Cyril Ramaphosa, Mandela’s heir, has achieved a few things but has generally punched below his weight. He is seeking redemption and a chance to be the leader that would define the identity of his country and shape its future.

John Steenhuisen, leader of the ‘Democratic Alliance’, was backed discreetly by Western Europe to be the first white president after Apartheid.

Julius Malema is a bright, brash, truculent, high-living ‘Marxist’ who wants to nationalise the mines and redistribute the land to black people. He is the face many worried whites see in their worst nightmares.

There is Jacob Zuma, of Umkhonto We Sizwe, brave and pathetic, standing for little, except a moral vacuity, even if he is allowed on the ballot.

It is dangerous to prognosticate, but at the end of the day, a new reality will probably emerge: an ANC Presidency, but one with ‘fire in the belly’, propelled to more drastic actions, such as finally tackling land distribution and facing down other urgent social and economic challenges, by a cooperation of some sort with the EFF and an effort to recapture the trust of the hungry and angry streets of the townships.

It is an unacceptable scenario for some, and perhaps the fascists originally from Eastern Europe will be ready, finally, to throw their South African passports in the dustbin.

An ‘African’ South Africa with global justice commitments, enriched by its large racial mix, is, hopefully, on the way to achieving greatness on its mother continent.