Dreams do not die in an instant, once they start to fade they linger for a time as the dreamer struggles to keep them alive, denying the inevitable. When they do die it is not with the intensity of the death of a thousand suns but the flickering of a candle wick drowning in what once gave it life, it’s own wax.
Recently I was reminded of Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s ascendancy to the Chairperson of the African Union when she garnered more votes than Gabon’s Jean Ping after a very tough voting process in 2012. Most in South Africa’s delegation celebrated this as a victory with dancing and singing once the final vote was in to the dismay of other delegates who thought this behaviour bordered on hubris. Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations, was at pains to explain that this is how things are done back home and this was not meant to be disrespectful of the outgoing Mr. Ping or other delegates, unfortunately the damage had already been done. Rumblings about South African arrogance and unsportsmanlike conduct in the AU Chairperson electoral process were rife and even today these sentiments have never quite abated.
On Sunday South Africa’s ruling African National Congress held their final rally before Wednesday 07 May’s general election. It was billed as a victory rally, oddly enough, for an election yet to happen. I come from a school of thought that dictates, no matter how sure a sure thing is, you don’t pop the champagne till the deed is done, it appears the ANC of today does not subscribe to this. Whilst it is plausible to argue that an ANC majority in the general election is a foregone conclusion, should it be seen as a win & if the result is in their favour, should this be celebrated as a victory? If indeed it is a victory then it stands to reason that there is at least one loser and if so who is or are the losers & what have they lost? I will return to this later.
In 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison an entire continent breathed a sigh of relief. I was in high school in Zimbabwe and 11 February was declared a public holiday in honour of the momentous occasion. As I grew up and started to better understand the political legacy of my country and the continent, I began to grasp the enormity of the expectation placed upon the world’s newest democracy at the time. In Mandela was a chance for a nation to change the African stereotypes of institutionalised corruption, intransigent leadership, human rights abuses and selective application of democratic principles. As everyone knows this was for the most part South Africa under Mandela and that after him the rainbow started to tarnish ever so slightly.
As somewhat of an outsider on the inside, as I spend a lot of my time here, I agree with the view that in the years following Mandela’s retirement in 1999 fractures began to appear in the South African rainbow. Some Afro-pessimists said South Africa would quickly go the way of all other African countries because there was really nothing special about the transition to democracy, that once Mandela died the country would burn. Whilst nothing as extreme as that has happened since Mandela passed on in December, events of at least the last five years have brought to the fore the fact that South Africa has significant governance shortcomings and it’s ruling party have adopted some of the unsavoury traits of stereotypical African leadership.
In the run-up to tomorrow’s elections allegations of the conflation of party and state by the African National Congress have become increasingly concerning with state resources allegedly used by the party in its campaigns culminating in a story this morning of an ANC election agent being found with ballot papers in his home, allegedly for safekeeping. All this whilst the Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) Pansy Tlakula has been embroiled in allegations of impropriety which simply won’t go away.
All this has contributed to tarnishing the dream that was South Africa for the rest of the continent. Whilst there is some truth to the claim that Africans in general aspire to South Africa’s level of economic sophistication it is also true that many Africans aspired to the dream of 1994 of an exemplary nation that made respect of the rule of law and protection of all who live in it paramount. This is where South Africa has failed Africa, killing the dream of hundreds of millions leaving us to grapple with the disbelief that if the dream is no more, what hope is there for the rest of us? If South Africa with all its resources, global goodwill and the best constitution in the world can get so caught up in “African problems” what hope do the rest of us have with our leaders’ lack of appreciation for democratic principles?
This brings me back to the ANC’s “victory” rally on Sunday. Whilst elections are about raising emotions as politicians look to keep their jobs, ruling parties are often prone to developing a sense of entitlement treating elections as a slight distraction from business as usual. I for one hoped this fate would not befall South Africa but it has. For a party to declare the result a foregone conclusion so blatantly reminds me of ZANU Pf’s star rally in Zimbabwe’s 2013 general elections on the last Sunday of campaigning at a packed National Sports Stadium in Harare. This was not my dream for South Africa.
An election is a chance for the people to make their voices heard by voting into office those who can best represent their interests. An election is a chance for elected officials to account to the people for what they have done with their mandate. This is no longer the case instead you have career politicians who put themselves and their needs ahead of the nation and allegiance to a President above all else. This presents the danger that those who did not vote for the ruling party and do not adopt its views run the risk of being marginalised from state resources, already such claims have been widespread at local government level in municipalities not governed by the ANC or where communities have expressed displeasure with the party. When a political party has a victory celebration before a single vote is cast in the country what message does this send to the citizenry?
The Freedom Charter, one of the founding documents of the country drawn up by leading minds of the fight for democratic rule in June 1955 under the umbrella movement the Congress Of the People, proclaims “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. One wonders just how this will be possible in the current political climate, how will the interests of those who do not support the ruling party be protected? It is one thing to have the best constitution ever written but it is quite another to live by it every single day. If they can disenfranchise their own citizens how will this government protect the interests of migrants who can’t vote but have made a life in this country? The selective application of tenets of this supreme law is what has left many an African nation broken. This has seen Botswana rise as a moral beacon replacing South Africa, in my view a much more significant setback than being ranked the second biggest African economy after Nigeria. Inappropriate comments about other African countries by the President and ministers in his cabinet do not inspire confidence.
The greatest achievement of apartheid was to separate the South African mentally from Africa by creating a fear of black Africa which is pervasive across all races to this day. This fear has become even more entrenched since 1994 and is unfortunately not taken seriously by any political party. It is this fear, not arrogance, that causes South Africans to project themselves the way they do across the continent and it continues to entrench a horrible apartheid legacy. As South Africa goes to the polls tomorrow I wonder how many citizens realise just how important this vote is to Africa and the immense consequences their actions will have throughout the continent. I honestly hope I am wrong and the dream is not dead, that South Africa will find its moral compass and restore its position as a true African success story, dragging all of us into the light that is unfettered democracy and real economic freedom.