What we could have been

Mike Berger says the electorate needs to say "no" both to the ANC and its extremist offshoots

"You was my brother, Charley,” (Terry says.) “You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me, just a little bit, so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money...I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” - Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront"

"We have met the enemy and he is us.” - Pogo created by Walt Kelly


The ANC is, of course, Charley Malloy. South Africa - and especially its neglected and battered black population, prey to every grasping political or criminal opportunist - is Terry Malloy. In the great Budd Schulberg script, Terry had at one stage been a promising young professional boxer with the potential to be a contender, as he said, for the world title. But he was sold down the river by his own brother into the clutches of even worse mobsters and gangster who infested the New York waterfront in the early years of the 20th century. And he landed up a 'bum'.

Yes, South Africa could have been a contender too. We had escaped the clutches of an outmoded and destructive racial ideology and had opened the new era with a quite magnificent display of maturity, magnanimity and intelligence. We were the toast of the world and the hope of a continent. We could have been contenders too.

Contenders for the greatest example of a multi-racial, multicultural population, putting aside the immense appeal of the 'blame game' and using the resources (cultural, physical and intellectual) left over from our bitter history of conquest and division to build a new society.

Many people in South Africa from across colour and ethnic divides, economic classes and ideologies understood that. The more thoughtful also appreciated it would be a hard road demanding all our collective reserves of self-discipline and emotional intelligence. The popular media revelled in the slogans of the "rainbow nation" and glorified some individuals while vilifying others, and from the fringes extremists tried to derail the train from the get go.

Nevertheless, the ship sailed on for a couple of years under a charismatic captain and intelligent and a competent and calm officer class. In his thoughtful and stimulating book 'Coalition Country', Leon Schreiber describes the deep pragmatism of the Unity Government (ANC, NP and IFP) at the time, the self-restraint displayed by many (not all) of the political leaders and the key role played by the Jakes Gerwel in holding erstwhile bitter enemies together to enact the vital steps and legislation required by a vulnerable country.

In retrospect these were halcyon days. Bitter enemies, committed to national rehabilitation and a national identity, managing to overcome the pain of history and massive differences in life experience and outlook to do what was necessary. The brilliant South African Constitution which must stand as one of the great documents of the late 20th century, provided the ethical and practical guidelines needed in those turbulent times.

In a sense it was too good to be true. Historians and political analysis will continue to argue about the causal forces which brought this temporary uneasy cooperation in the national interest to a close. Some will say this was inevitable: factor in human nature, collective dynamics, the media, shifting Western intellectual trends towards identity politics, the Grand Canyon of South African political, ethnic and historical divides, inevitable misjudgements by political leaders, obsolete and unworkable narratives and the inevitable fringe of narcissistic opportunists and criminals, and success was unobtainable.

That may well be true in terms of some predictive software modelling program (and I have omitted many other explanations of varying degrees of merit) from consideration. But I want to boil it down to this: Charley and his mobster friends were not the only ones to blame for Terry Malloy's fate. Terry himself could have had the insight and the courage to refuse to be hoodwinked and blackmailed. He failed at the crucial moments to do this and the outcome for him was predictable.

You can see where this is going. South Africa, maybe especially black South Africa, also have the opportunity to say no. No to a party which has failed and betrayed them. No to a party which exploits them and manipulates their emotions for the benefit of the few. South Africans must ask themselves how much evidence, how much pain and suffering will they bear before having the courage to see the current ANC and its smaller even more virulent clones, for the criminally incompetent and corrupt political formations they are?

We have just emerged from a profoundly bleak decade while we watched the tattered resources of our liberal (constitutional) democracy being looted by a voracious pack of ANC politicians and their allies. The polarising discourse agitating the 'progressive' West has been eagerly absorbed by vulnerable youth searching for justice, meaning or identity. Under cover of this grievance-outrage-identity industry our institutions have been systematically undermined, our economy ravaged and our future mortgaged to Utopian political mirages.

I know that there are many in South Africa who see the end of this road as either progressive transition to a Venbabwe hybrid or balkanisation of South Africa. They have no faith that the electorate will have the insight to act appropriately. Such individuals either leave the country or prepare themselves for economic and political breakdown or simply hope for a deus ex machina and live in the moment. Many have no choice.

Prophecies of doom do not always come true. I have no proof, but I believe that this country has enough sanity, enough intelligence and knowledge, enough creativity to turn the huge lumbering ship of state away from the rocks. But they must change captain and find the only possible captain capable of managing such a manoeuvre. Every other consideration is irrelevant at this stage of our political trajectory. The dogs may bark but if you want to turn the caravan of history around you have to ignore that.

Again, despite the mixed metaphors, you know where I'm going: you need to grit your teeth and vote for the DA. As a sane human being, you have no alternative. I could sing the party's praises, and indeed it deserves admiration and respect for its achievements in the context of the South African slide to the bottom. It has produced one of the great transformative political leaders in South African history and has made much - not all unfortunately - of the Western Cape into something approaching a First World country.

I'm not going to waste my time or yours with a recital of the DA's failures and missteps. But on the key issues it is the only party with the vision, expertise and resources to do what needs to be done to save South Africa. The electorate must become involved. South Africans must learn to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral. We must learn to filter out the propaganda and fake news from reality. We must learn patience. We must educate ourselves. We need to learn to listen to others, but critically. We must filter everything through a layer of commonsense.

Helping the DA to have a secure bargaining position in the upcoming struggle for power is only one small but absolutely vital step. We need to hold our nerve and our judgement for the long haul. There are a few who welcome chaos as inevitable and offering a chance to reconstitute South Africa in a more viable form. There are more who see it as a chance for personal power and the accumulation of wealth. And unfortunately there are many who do not see it all.

This article does not even attempt to cover all the possible permutations possible in our future. It attempts to lay out the fundamental contours of our present and foreseeable political landscape at this point in our history. In terms of that, the only rational, indeed sane choice, is the DA in the upcoming elections.

After that, let the debate begin regarding the way forward. When the ship has already foundered on the rocks it is too late to talk human rights and transformation. Let's first concentrate on what is necessary to have a chance of staying afloat. Otherwise the Pogo/Walt Kelly quote at the top of this article will indeed be our fate.

Mike Berger