The trouble with South Africa. By Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Ramaphosa-n-Zuma_in 2019 file pix

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South Africa’s decline in key areas including governance, ethics, economic well-being and leadership means we are allowing the tragic lessons of Africa’s post-independence go to waste.

After independence, many African countries made terrible mistakes. Their citizens trusted their political liberation heroes too much even when patriotic skepticism was called for.

Thus, the big men of Africa became an untouchable political class. But the new rulers, unlike the old, had no direct access to the Western world except when they sought to stash ill-gotten cash in European banks or permitting the looting of African resources in exchange for pittance.

The result was that Africa could not access capital for development. And when it came, it had conditions attached. With power-hungry and corrupt African leadership in charge, former colonial powers saw opportunities to sponsor divisions and perpetuate Africa’s economic dependence. So, colonialism continued in various guises.

Unwilling to take responsibility for the mess, African leaders conveniently shifted the blame until such time this strategy reached its expiry date. Many of these leaders were forced to open the democratic space to be challenged by opponents.

President Nelson Mandela emphasised the need for African leaders to self-introspect. President Thabo Mbeki took the theme further in an attempt to re-assert the agency of African leadership in determining the future of the continent. Mandela and Mbeki gave the impression that South Africans understood the implications of the tragedy of post-independence and that we would avoid it.

But recent developments in our country – 11 wasted years – suggests we are not learning from the tragedy of underdevelopment that was the hallmark of Africa’s post-independence. 

Granted, we have better constitution and governance systems. But this means nothing if they are not fully reflected in day-to-day reality.

The head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Shamila Batohi, cannot confirm to the nation that all known thieves will be prosecuted. The country’s Deputy Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo, runs out of words in response to what he is hearing about blatant corruption. He wonders whether a president of the republic and Parliament are performing their tasks as constitutionally enshrined or beholden to dirty ANC politics.

The governing party, the ANC, is not interested in rediscovering its lost moral compass. And the two biggest political parties craving to replace it are either consumed by endemic corruption or the DNA of rampant racism at the upper echelons. We are in a political cul-de-sac.  And this is the trouble with South Africa.

Talking of learning from the experience of other African countries, one is reminded of an instructive essay, “The Trouble with Nigeria”, by the intellectual Chinua Achebe. Published in 1983, the essay resonates with a lot that is happening in South Africa today. “There is basically nothing wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else,” Achebe writes. “The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” (Add South Africa, you get the gist).

Achebe further writes that such leaders are rare in any time or place. “But it is the duty of enlightened citizens to lead the way in their discovery and to create an atmosphere conducive to their emergence. If this conscious effort is not made, good leaders, like good money, will be driven out by bad.” (Think about Florence Radzilani and Danny Msiza, two prominent ANC leaders in Limpopo who are linked to the VBS thieving of poor people’s savings but are holding on to their positions regardless. There are many others like them).

Achebe further observes: “Nigeria has many thoughtful men and women of conscience, a large number of talented people. Why is it then that all these patriots make little impact on the life of our nation? 

“Why is it that our corruption, gross inequalities, our noisy vulgarity, our selfishness, our ineptitude seem much stronger than the good influences at work in our society? Why do the good among us seem so helpless while the worst are full of vile energy?” (Let’s ask these questions of South Africa and provide honest answers).

In another section of the essay, Achebe discusses the commonly expressed Nigerian ideal of unity. 

He asks: “How valid is this notion of unity as an absolute good?” His answer: “Quite clearly it is nonsense.”

He says unity can only be as good as the purpose for which it is desired. “Obviously it is good for a group of people to unite to build a school or a hospital or a nation. But supposing a group of other people get together in order to rob a bank. Their unity is deemed undesirable.” 

This part makes one to wonder: Is there immunity from punishment for deployed cadres who gang up to rob a bank or food parcels, in the interest of ANC unity? It’s time the ANC evaluated the purpose of its much-vaunted call for unity.  

Achebe has a suggestion: “Why did we not think, for example, of such concepts as Justice and Honesty which cannot be so easily directed to undesirable ends? Justice never prompts the question: Justice for what? Neither does Honesty or Truth.”  (Can the ANC replace its songs of unity with songs of honesty?)

Achebe also tackles the difficult question of patriotism, which he says is not easy or comfortable for a badly run country like Nigeria. 

This, he says, is not made any easier by the fact that no matter how badly a country may be run there will always be some people whose personal, selfish interests are, in the short term at least, well served by the mismanagement.”Naturally, [such people] will be extremely loud in their adulation of the country and its system, and will be anxious to pass themselves off as the patriots and to vilify those who disagree with them as trouble-makers or even traitors. But doomed is the nation which permits such people to define patriotism for it.”

In South Africa, the corrupt are protected as if they are the VIPs of patriotism. Whistleblowers are the villains who are targeted and murdered. Again, think VBS.

Maybe we have just entered a “new yawn”, not “new dawn”, to borrow a phrase from broadcaster Bongani Bingwa. Mkhabela is editor of The Sowetan.