Martin Henry, Contributor
Next year will be a big year in South Africa, a very big year. And perhaps one should have postponed visiting until 2014. But business before pleasure.
Jamaica is very much present in South Africa even without Jamaicans. Real Jamaican dancehall music from Yaad, not imitations of it abroad, is played on radio. And on the playlist of background music at the conference hotel is Bob Marley. Mention Jamaica and everybody knows Bob Marley and Usain Bolt, and want to visit.
In 2014, it will be 20 years since democracy. And time is measured in South Africa 'since democracy' in 1994 when the first post-apartheid all-race election brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power and its released leader Nelson Mandela to the presidency. The ANC has been ruling since then, and it's back to the polls next year.
Next year may be the first year since democracy that the country may have to do without the living presence of Mandela, who is not only founding national hero for democratic South Africa, but a kind of miracle glue which has held the country together against the odds.
Despite ex-wife Winnie cheerfully telling the South African Broadcasting Corporation that Madiba is doing fine, the whole world braces for his passing. "He is fine," she said. "The spirits of Africa ... his ancestors are keeping him for all of us." But as one of his old comrades advised when Mandela was in hospital, we have to learn to let him go.
Disaffection with ANC
The ANC is likely to retain power at the polls next year. But dogged by charges of corruption, rising disaffection among traditional black core supporters about the pace of delivery of improvements to their lives, and the growing strength of other parties, the ANC is likely to lose substantial ground. The provincial governments of two of the nine provinces are already controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
A running news item over the last few weeks in the country was the billboard war between the ANC and the DA. Mysteriously appearing at the soon-to-be-commissioned toll booths along Johannesburg highways are big billboards reading "E-tolls proudly brought to you by the ANC". Just as in the case of the Portmore toll here, people are vehemently opposed to the new tolls.
The ANC announced that it was going to investigate whoever was behind the billboards which were painting the party in a negative light before next year's election. Then the DA came out publicly acknowledging that it was behind the billboards and asking, "So what's the ANC problem with the billboard? Is the ANC ashamed of e-tolls all of a sudden?"
The aggressive ANC search for the billboard culprit ended with the whimper when the culprit revealed itself that the ruling party had noted the DA's statement but "is not commenting on the matter"!
A lame advertisement is now running in the media. Mother hugging daughter. "What will my toll fees buy me? Ten hours of smiles a month. I now spend around 15 minutes less on the road, twice a day. This adds up to at least 10 extra hours that I can spend with my kids."
The ANC Women's League (WL) set off a firestorm when its president told a media briefing at the party's headquarters that there would be no woman president anytime soon. Pushing for a woman president now "would be a futile process," she said. "We know the ANC, we understand the ANC processes, and no one wants to go into a futile battle. There are traditions, there are processes, and those processes have a long, long life." The pro-ANC Sowetan newspaper fired off a sharp editorial, 'A giant leap backwards', roundly criticising the stance of the ANCWL.
A senior member of the ANC and a former treasurer, Matthews Phosa, in a public debate on transformation, bluntly said that the ruling party had exhausted its blame game on the apartheid regime. "We are a government placing the blame on the past. It sounds like a pathetic plea in mitigation. It's time to shape our own future decisively."
Phosa said the ANC's constant failure to implement policies like the National Development Plan created instability in the country and chased investors away. South Africa, like us, has a 2030 development plan. The ruling party, its former treasurer said, should focus its energies on tackling corruption and work on becoming more transparent. Very familiar language here.
The Tutus, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond and his wife Leah, remain an active presence in their country. Archbishop Tutu turned 82 on October 7 and his wife 80 later in the month, and there was a public birthday bash for them in Cape Town.
Tutu himself hosted Kofi Annan at the third annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture delivered by the Ghanaian former UN secretary general at the University of the Western Cape on October 8. As the whole world knows from the media coverage of the lecture, Annan defended the role of the International Court of Justice in prosecuting African leaders for crimes against humanity against the protest of the African Union.
In the old days, the Mandelas and the Tutus were close neighbours in Soweto-Southwestern Township, Johannesburg. One of the big gripes in the country is how little life in the black townships where black people were herded under apartheid has improved.
The crime problem in South Africa mirrors ours. 'Five killed, two injured as disgruntled patron opens fire in ... tavern', a front-page headline in the Cape Times read on October 7. The shooter became angry when a woman dropped and broke his bottle of Hennessy and left to get his gun.
The crime stories come thick and fast. There is ready access to firearms and the willingness to use them like here. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world, which has been declining except for a spike last year. Rival taxi drivers, a news report in the Cape Argus said, are killing each other in the city of Delft. Six dead to date and commuters injured in shootings.
Police killings and abuse are also in the media spotlight. Another Cape Argus story reads 'Marikana film reveals cops' role in massacre', reviewing a soon-to-be-released film on the killing of protesting miners in August last year by the police. Video footage never seen before by the public, the report claims, suggests most of the miners were running away from the police when they were shot and that the police hunted down miners who were hiding among rocks and, that some miners were killed while trying to surrender.
"The film," the paper said, "presents a counter-narrative to the police's version that they acted in self-defence when they killed 34 miners. Viewers are left with the impression that police officers were acting under the knowledge that they would not be held accountable for opening fire," the story said.
This is so reminiscent of the white police of the apartheid regime opening fire on black schoolchildren marching in protest in Soweto in 1976 against being forced to be taught in Afrikaans. This event is commemorated in the gut-wrenching Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto named after a student who was killed in the shooting and whose bloody image was captured in a photograph, borne in the arms of a fellow student who would not leave him behind. But Marikana was black police against black miners, 18 years since democracy.
South Africa, albeit with the strongest economy in Africa, suffers from serious labour unrest and there have been major recent strikes. " The number of days lost to strikes grows with rising inequality," one commentator argued in the Cape Times of October 7.
The car manufacturer BMW, hit by a four-week strike of car parts makers, has judged the labour situation in the country as being "inherently unstable", and the company says it has no plans to reverse a freeze on expansion. Jamaica is, at the moment, faring a bit better in labour relations, but for other reasons may not be attracting as much foreign investment as it could.
Just scanning the papers, I have discovered several South African institutions, programmes and laws aimed at reducing the imbalances in the society and offering some protection to the most vulnerable. There is a banking law which penalises banks for careless lending, and the National Credit Regulator has just fined African Bank 20 million rand for "recklessly granted loans". There is a Compensation Fund for employee injury on duty. There are disability grants, old-age pensions, care dependency grants, child-support grants, and war veterans pensions through a Social Security Agency.
Looking at South Africa from the outside in, we see a society miraculously holding together despite the deep divisions of the past along the lines of race and tribe. Writing in his personal capacity in the Cape Argus on October 8, chief director for social cohesion in the Department of Arts & Culture, Sandhile Memela, proposed, "To measure progress, let's dump obsession with race. More and more people," he says, "define themselves in terms of their citizenry and not race or language or ethnic group."
The paper thought Memela's view on its op-ed page important enough to be the subject of its own editorial.
Mandela's greatest legacy is going to be his personal example and leadership in transcending the trespasses of apartheid and creating at the core level of attitude a peaceful and cohesive society which, in light of its deep divisions and oppressions of the past, ought not to have been.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.