Love in the time of Marikana, Nkandla and Anene Booysen.
“On this day, a decade and a half ago, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was formally elected as the first president of a democratic South Africa. At that moment a new nation was born, a nation founded on the fundamental principles of human dignity and equal rights for all.
“A nation founded on the promise that ‘never, never and never again’ would this land experience the oppression of one by another. Today, a decade and a half later, we gather here to reaffirm the promise of that great day.
“We gather here determined to renew that most solemn undertaking, to build a society in which all people are freed from the shackles of discrimination, exploitation, want and disease. We gather here determined that the struggles and sacrifices of our people over many decades shall not be in vain. Instead, they shall inspire us to complete the task for which so much blood was shed, and so much hardship endured. This is a moment of renewal.”
With these words, Jacob Zuma began his presidency in May 2009, when he was inaugurated as the fourth president of South Africa. He swept to power surfing the crest of a wave, following the years of dramatic public fall and a spectacular recovery from disgrace and criminal prosecution. When he took office, there was a great sense of goodwill and expectancy around his presidency. He gave the impression that, if nothing else, he had his finger on the pulse of the nation, understood the inherent problems and frustrations, and that his would be a hands-on administration.
South Africans genuinely wanted to believe that the “people’s president” would bring positive change and that the period of detached governance under Thabo Mbeki would be a thing of the past.
The expectations the country and the world had of Zuma were also based on the pledge he himself made when he raised his right hand and took a solemn oath of office to “protect and promote the rights of all South Africans” and let “truth be the dictate of my conscience”.
“I will devote myself to the well-being of the republic and all of its people. So help me God.”
Every administration since the dawn of democracy in 1994 has had its share of problems, from the economic battles around the Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy under Nelson Mandela, to the Aids, crime and Zimbabwe turmoil that beset the Mbeki presidency.
Zuma has not lived up to his pledge.
But never before has South Africa felt under siege as it does these days. The incredible explosion around The Spear painting, when the ruling alliance strutted and bullied, showed that they were willing to interfere with fundamental freedoms to shield its leader, and, what’s more, use it for their narrow political interests. The ANC had the same attitude towards the Protection of State Information Bill, dangerous legislation that will erode freedom of expression and public accountability.
And at the same time as the ANC flexed its muscles over The Spear controversy, the non-delivery of textbooks to schools in Limpopo presented a clear and distressing evidence of how the most vulnerable in our society suffer most from failures of government.
For most of 2012, the ANC was consumed with internal party and factional battles related to the Mangaung elective conference, deepening the disconnect from its broader constituency. All around our country, though, people were crying out for the attention of their elected representatives as frustrations over poor service delivery and corruption boiled over. Anger and violence became commonplace on our streets as communities realised that this was the only way to air their grievances. It is a symptom of a definitive failure of political leadership.
The killing of 34 mineworkers by the police following a protracted and violent wildcat strike marked the darkest moment of democratic South Africa. It broke the sacred covenant between the party of liberation and its people, showing that through the state, they were now on different sides.
Irrespective of the outcome of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into who is to blame for the massacre, the fabric of our society has been torn. Our fellow countrymen were killed by our police because of the multiple failures of the institutions of our society. It is our collective shame and we, as a country, will never again be the same.
A wave of strikes that followed in the mining and farming sectors showed the level of discontent in the key industries that keep the wheels of the economy turning. The successive downgrades by international ratings agencies exhibited starkly that we cannot conceal our problems from the rest of the world. Inequalities in our society are reaching unprecedented levels as the rich get richer and poverty and unemployment worsens.
Corruption in the state has been weighing heavily on the national mood. It is a creeping cancer which is countering service delivery and effective government. The prevailing scandal fatigue in society is as a result of the sense of helplessness to halt the rise of securocrats and the abuse of taxpayers’ money.
The ridiculously opulent and overpriced upgrade of Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla has served as the ultimate insult to the public’s trust in the state. Government’s shameful response to the scandal by trying to excuse the exorbitant expenditure and hiding behind Apartheid-era legislation on National Key Points has shown contempt for the voter and the taxpayer. It has also shown that the truth is scarce these days and will be used sparingly.
All these incidents have been a betrayal of Zuma’s oath of office and the pledge he made to protect and defend the constitutional rights of South Africans. Despite the appellation “the people’s man”, he nevertheless leads a government that has shown time and time again that it does not care for its people. The trust the majority of South Africans placed in Zuma and the ANC through the ballot in 2009 stands betrayed.
But it was the sheer horror at the rape and mutilation of Anene Booysen earlier this month that finally broke South Africa. It stunned the country into the realisation that we are a fundamentally flawed and sick society that hurts and debases its own. The horrendous attack on the 17-year-old girl, who could not complete her schooling through poverty, lived a miserable existence in her short life and fought for justice with her last breaths, woke the nation up to the reality of rampant violence and abuse of women and children in a country that increasingly cannot protect the weak and vulnerable.
Anene Booysen has become the face of the tragedy that is South Africa, AD 2013.
This country is now desperate for leadership. And hope. When President Zuma stands at the podium in Parliament on Valentine’s Day, he will address a besieged, divided and angry nation.
The love story of a country that crushed a vile and oppressive government and rose from the ashes is no more.
The ANC and government have made it clear that government planning, policy and programmes will from now on be based on the National Development Plan (NDP) and that Zuma’s speech will flesh this out in more detail.
But this has to be more than a nuts-and-bolts kind of speech. More than promises and grand plans, South Africa needs to find its way again. Big talk and impressive sounding government projects, which will take several years to develop, will not suffice this time.
Of course, the NDP needs implementation programmes and budget allocations, and real measures are required to create jobs, eradicate disparities and poverty, and fix broken down government systems. But Zuma must also acknowledge that his country has been through severe trauma and needs demonstrative action to deal with the sources of the pain.
What can the children of Marikana’s dead miners look forward to tomorrow?
What can frightened parents do tomorrow to protect their children?
What future can the high-school graduate look forward to?
Can you tell us, Mr Zuma?
Zuma was re-elected as ANC president in December through an overwhelming majority, showing that the ruling party still has faith in him to lead South Africa for another term. Still, his re-election was not attached to any conditions and he was once more given a blank slate as to where he wants to lead the country, possibly for another term as state president until 2019.
We are now entering an election year and Zuma and the ANC will be looking to regain South Africa’s confidence in order to win an overwhelming majority again at the polls.
Zuma has the opportunity to start this process now. He needs to shed the image of a man who constantly takes but never gives, who officiates over government but doesn’t lead and who is forever plagued by shame. He needs to be the president and father of the nation. He needs to soothe the pain and turmoil of the past year, draw a line under it and start a new chapter. He needs to be reminded of what he told us the day he was inaugurated:
“Today, as I take this solemn oath of office as the fourth president of the Republic of South Africa, I do so deeply conscious of the responsibilities that you, the people of our country are entrusting in me. I commit myself to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion.”
Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation is in tatters. In its place is a people hurting, distressed and lost. Too many millions are waking up today without any hope that their life will be better than yesterday. While lovers across the world celebrate love on this day, South Africa’s is a black Valentine.
It is not too late for Zuma, or for South Africa. We have overcome worse, we can become better again.
Talk to us, Mr President.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.