The world is worried about South Africa

Douglas Gibson says we badly need an infusion of the Mandela spirit

South Africans are odd and interesting; we alternate between fits of national euphoria and depression, sometimes quite out of proportion to the cause. We invest our country with an importance and significance in the world that is really not justified.

However, it is a fact that the world has become so accessible that what happens here and in other countries, especially in the West, is amazingly widely known almost everywhere.  What happens in South Africa is known and followed by informed people around the world.

This was brought home to me again on board the luxurious Queen Mary 2, the largest Trans-Atlantic liner ever built. These are older, well-heeled people, more than two thousand of them, many of whom are educated, travelled and sophisticated.  As a guest lecturer on world affairs I have had audiences of around 500 at my five talks and I have spent many hours before and afterwards talking to passengers about South Africa.  The sympathy and interest in South Africa, the knowledge about recent political developments, and the concern about our deterioration over the past few years has been an eye-opener.  

Many people care about our country, wishing us well, but fear we are in the process of blowing it.  Of course, some former South Africans left because they did not like the prospects for the future.  Without wishing us harm, they have a vested interest in a deteriorating South Africa; it affirms that they were right to leave when they did. They are in the minority, however, and almost everyone I met cared about us and hoped that we would succeed as a country.

During my years as a diplomat, representing South Africa in Thailand and other countries in South East Asia, I was often struck by the respect that our country enjoyed as a place that had left behind a dark past, miraculously escaping a bloody race war, and emerged as a modern constitutional democracy. On innumerable occasions I was asked to share with foreign political leaders, some of them very significant ones, how we had managed it. 

Each time, whether in private conversation or on radio, television, at universities or at the local equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I stressed that it was only through the hearts of people that real change could come.  I always pointed out that we as a complex society with many languages, cultures, colours and religions had negotiated a new beginning over several years before finding each other.  Even then, it took more years before our final constitution in 1996.

Although our constitution-makers had access to the best constitutional authorities and lawyers in the world and had studied all the modern constitutions, such as those of India and Canada, for example, we insisted on a home-grown effort, with the input of a million or more of our people, embodying the best and most progressive values of the world.  We ended up with a constitutional democracy that is the guarantor of the rights and freedoms of all South Africans and that ensures that government at every level obeys the constitution. 

Despite all the setbacks, the hiccups, the active undermining during the Zuma years, and even before that in the Mbeki years, our constitution is holding.  South Africans should be profoundly grateful that this is so. It is for this reason that President Zuma cannot be given a Mugabe-like deal; all of us are equal and even former presidents cannot escape without facing justice. Zuma, if charged and convicted, could be given a   pardon by the new president, but he cannot escape prosecution through an amnesty.

Often, the people I met on the Queen Mary 2 have heard about Cyril Ramaphosa and some have an unrealistic expectation of what he can achieve.  I, of course, say that anyone would be a massive improvement over the locust years of the Zuma administration and one hopes for the best but the truth is that the ANC has betrayed the trust of the voters and permitted the looting, the corruption, the ineptitude and the policy confusion to go unchecked. Mr Ramaphosa not only actively assisted Zuma to win another five years in power at Mangaung, but sat quiet in the cabinet while all of this went on under his nose.

Without slagging off the country, I have not minced my words in saying that in a constitutional democracy, a generation is far too long for any party to be in government.  South Africa badly needs a new government, perhaps a coalition government, that realises that it does not have a divine right to rule. What the ANC needs is a good long time on the opposition benches in parliament that will give it the chance to get rid of the careerists, the bandwagon climbers, the corrupt and the inept and to start developing a set of policies with answers for the twenty first century instead of being rooted in the outdated and failed philosophies of the communists and others dating from early in the previous century.

Furthermore, and this resonated with everyone I talked to, the country badly needs an infusion of the Mandela spirit.  Our national icon is universally known and respected and the Rainbow Nation attitude that he displayed is so admired, that nothing we could do would be more effective in persuading the world that we are back on the right track than having our politicians and our leaders reach out to each other, trying to transcend the differences and stressing our common South African being. We need to reject the heightened racism that is becoming all too evident in black/white relations, fanned by certain politicians, and reach back a few years to find again the national unity that the country needs. 

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand.  His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

This article first appeared in The Star.