Reflections on April 27th, 28 years on

Jeremy Gordin writes on the disappointed hopes of that period

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ...” etc., as Charles Dickens wrote at the start of A Tale of Two Cities.

And for thousands, even millions, of Seffricans, 28 years ago on the 27th of April 1994 – the day on which the first post-apartheid elections were held – it was indeed the best of times. Or at least that day carried the promise that henceforth our times would be a whole lot better than they had been before that date.

For me personally, it was certainly among the best of times. Among other things, my son, then minus-three-months old, was clearly burgeoning; and the gleam in my eye remained undimmed for a while – my daughter would be born four years later. And both are, baruch ha-Shem, still going strong and, one way or another, keeping their parents on the straight and narrow, as offspring ought to do.

But what was it that the Ukrainian-born Marxist revolutionary Lev Davidovich Bronstein is alleged to have once written? “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Well, it seems that he didn’t write that. Turns out that it was one Michael Walzer who wrote in 2000: War is most often a form of tyranny. It is best described by paraphrasing Trotsky’s aphorism about the dialectic: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you’.”

No matter; the subject of what seems to be turning out not to be what is, is what’s on my mind today. So we too may paraphrase: “You may not be interested in politics or the society around you, but they are interested in you”.

All of which is to say that, notwithstanding the presence of my family and other good things and happinesses in my life, the last 28 years have turned into the worst of times – or almost the worst of times (we’re not yet being shelled by Zimbabwe yet) – when it comes to the society in which we live.

Ah yes, remember those lines of people wanting to exercise their right to vote and to put into government their representatives who would take care of them? Those lines that snaked around blocks and blocks in the cities and seemed endless?

Now they’ve been replaced by long queues of people waiting outside home affairs offices or by elderly people, many ailing and wearing blankets against the cold, standing in line for their social grants.

Remember the trains that many of those people travelled on – if not on that day, then on other days as they made their way to work? Precious little of those, if any, left. Remember the stations? I’ll say no more.

Twenty-eight years ago – panoramic photographs of hope; unity and incipient strength; idealism and ethics, especially given the ostensible qualities of the then ANC leaders [i]; and faith in the future.

Now – portraits of hopelessness; disunity and weakness; avarice and mendacity; and scant, if any, faith in the future.

Am I exaggerating?

According to Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, King George III accidentally bumped into Johnson in a library somewhere and complimented him on his talent. “When asked by another friend ...whether he made any reply to this high compliment, [Johnson] answered, ‘No, Sir. When the King had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my sovereign’.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa doesn’t feel much like my or anybody’s sovereign. Notwithstanding his ostensible powers, he seems more like Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, the twin-like ineffectual courtiers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; or like an odd duck (or frog?) in need of sympathy, because he’s paddling wildly underwater but not going anywhere. Others would disagree with me and, pointing to his record, would say he’s not paddling and that, notwithstanding his smile and cute way with words, he is simply a bullsxxtter.

In any case, Ramaphosa would say that I am exaggerating. Look at yesterday’s “keynote address” delivered in Mpumalanga on the occasion of Freedom Day.

Once he’s gotten past the evils of the ancien regime, which are de rigueur to mention on such occasions, Ramaphosa says: “In democratic South Africa, 81 per cent of people live in formal housing. Nine out of 10 South Africans have access to clean water and more than 85 per cent have access to electricity. In democratic South Africa, basic education and health care is no longer the privilege of a few, but available to all.”

I presume he has his facts correct – there must have been a bevy of subalterns looking up and auditing this stuff for days – but I have a feeling there’s a little “stretching” of figures and facts going on.

“Eighty-one” percent of people live in “formal” housing? Depends how you define “formal housing.” Nine out of 10 have access to “clean water”? Doesn’t seem to be the case with all the folk I often see and hear on TV and radio – in widespread rural areas, not to mention conurbations – complaining about being without water for days.

Then there’s electricity. Maybe Ramaphosa has a generator at his home – I hope so, he’s a president – but many including me have been denied access to electricity countless times over the last few years; and from what one reads, in my area the electricity and water “infrastructure” are like a 69-year-old getting out of the bed in the morning – they’re teetering.

Or how about basic education and health care? I think it’s common cause that even non-basic education is frighteningly basic and that health care, if you’re poor, is difficult to come by, especially in an emergency.

And so Ramaphosa’s “address” goes on and on in much same vein. Though somewhere near the end he does try to suggest that he knows what’s what by remarking, “However, [life in SA] has been tarnished by acts of corruption and state capture. For some in positions of responsibility, the pursuit of self-enrichment was more important than improving the lives of the people. [But]

South Africans have shown that they are determined to ... end state capture and fight corruption and rebuild the institutions of our democracy.”

At this point I was going to write that I’d like to recall the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.” But no; it’s a little different. What we have here is an attempt to have us believe that what is isn’t so bad after all and that there’s a chance everything will be okay.

I think not. Those in positions of responsibility, whose pursuit of self-enrichment is more important than improving the lives of the people, are the very people on whom Ramaphosa depends for his position, and they don’t want to give up the pursuit of self-enrichment. They like it.

This pursuit is now endemic; if you don’t think it’s so, check out the slim Jannie maneuverings going on around former mayor of eThekwini, Zandile Gumede, and the ruling about stepping-down adopted at the ANC’s 2017 national conference. And South Africans know this stuff is endemic; and I don’t know of any curative vaccine.

We sometimes forget that the end of the Dickens quote starting “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” ends as follows: “... in short, the period [that Dickens was describing, 1789] was so [much] like the present period [1859, when Dickens was writing] that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only” – just as Ramaphosa thinks (or pretends to think) that April 27, 2022 should be regarded as superlatively as April 27, 1994 (i.e., Ramaphosa’s looking from the other end of the telescope).

But looking back now at what we celebrated then, what is there to commemorate? For this country and for most people, there’s extraordinarily little of which I can think.

Still, here’s an anecdote that might cheer you up. We have a former president who has been known to chortle (if that’s the word I want), heh-heh-heh, when wanting to be derisive about someone or something.

And here’s the thing. On 27 April 1994, I voted for the Democratic Party (now the DA). Really, I kid you not. Prescient or something? Nah, I guess I’m just a contrarian; the altar at which I worship is that of the goddess Davka (that’s if I remember to worship).

So when I remember that the future (unofficial) biographer of JG Zuma voted for the DA on that date, 28 years ago, I do allow myself a little heh-heh-heh. I hope you’ll be able to have a little laugh too, even though this is 2022.


[i] Careful history, looking at things in retrospect, and studying the proofs of the puddings in various eatings have not been all that kind to the ANC leaders of yore – but I’m talking about then, 28 years back.