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A different shade of guilt

There seem to be many distractions around lately; political under-currents which are swirling dangerously beneath us. It is a time for cool heads yet we often find very few, if any.

The President was last heard of resting in Russia amidst a few 'low level' meetings and then opening a hospital in Upington. Meanwhile, Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, blinked first and has decided not to suspend the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs as she threatened to do last week. So much for the African National Congress (ANC) comment that it would go to court to provide the EFFs a 'free lesson in Parliamentary rules'.

Well, it seems as if the Speaker might need a few lessons herself. Had she read Rule 52 properly she would have realised that she was unable to suspend the MPs after the fact as she tried to do. The Powers and Privileges committee will need to do its work now, according to the Constitution and the Rules of the National Assembly. That committee's work is underway though we are told it is to do its work behind closed doors. A curious decision since committees of Parliament should be open 'unless it is reasonable and justifiable' to close the meeting, says s59 of the Constitution. What compelling reasons are there for the committee to be closed to the public?

In other news Pansy Tlakula, head of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has tendered her resignation. This comes after a long battle in which Tlakula dug her heels in and took every legal option available to her in order to fight Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's findings. Last year, Madonsela found that Tlakula had presided over an 'unmanaged conflict of interest' when the IEC entered into a R320 million lease agreement for office space. The allegation was that Tlakula - who was then the CEO - had at the very least a business relationship with ANC MP Thaba Mufamadi, chairperson of Parliament's finance committee, and that Mufamadi had benefitted from the deal. Tlakula pronounced that she had recused herself from the decision-making meeting and that she did not personally benefit from the lease deal (although when precisely, and with what effect, she actually recused herself is somewhat unclear). Tlakula's attempts to approach the Electoral Court and the Constitutional Court came to naught and she has resigned, avoiding a Parliamentary committee hearing to decide her fate.

Tlakula's decision to resign is to be welcomed. Of course she might not have dragged the matter out to such a degree, but that was her right. Clearly the SABC's Hlaudi Motsoeneng has had no such crisis of conscience bringing him to resign.

Quite what Tlakula's next step will be remains to be seen, though one would not be surprised to see her morph into a diplomat. Tlakula's downfall is a loss to the IEC and also to the friends she had in civil society where she was a champion of open government and freedom of information.

And so the under-currents show that South Africa is, 'a noisy place' in which to live, as Kate O' Regan said in a recent interview. When the silence of opposing voices falls, she says, that's when we ought to be really worried. She is right, of course, and what all of the examples above show is a country full of deep contradictions and one trying desperately to find its anchor. Our democratic institutions are fragile, often battered and bruised by the opportunistic utterances of irresponsible politicians. What we do and say and how we undergird our institutions and who leads them will come to define our future.

But our future also depends very heavily on that which we have left behind or rather, what we have tried to leave behind. We don't often think enough about that given the day-to-day uncertainties and political headwinds. But last month, an opportunity arose when President Michele Bachelet of Chile visited South Africa to deliver the 12th annual Nelson Mandela lecture in Cape Town. Even after his passing, we can count on Madiba's legacy to draw us back to basics and to think afresh about our democratic project.

In the morning prior to the lecture, Bachelet was gracious enough to agree to a small round-table dialogue in which she was asked to discuss ways in which Chile had dealt with its troubled past and the many challenges which still remain. As South Africans who participated in the dialogue, our concerns were for the present, for our deepening levels of socio-economic inequality, the straining of our democratic institutions and the deep ways in which we have been scarred by the past. There was a sense amongst us that 'hurts buried alive don't die'. Somehow the past remains simmering close to the surface as we attempt to find solutions to the present.

Bachelet's words were as challenging as they were engaging, open and thoughtful as she talked of Chile's move from the Pinochet dictatorship to building a democracy. Her words were crisp; what we are experiencing may have a different context but we are not unique in our struggle to deal with the past and the inequality and poverty of the present day.

For South Africans so hung up on our exceptionalism, this might come as a surprise, yet our continuing transition has been fraught precisely because we may have under-estimated the challenges of building a democratic society with institutions which are responsive. But, we may also have under-estimated the different kind of sacrifices it would take to create a sense of social solidarity across race and class and across spatial divides so cleverly orchestrated by apartheid and still perpetuated.

The lengthy platinum strike recently has shown just how frayed we really are in the ways in which we understand each other's stories. But as Bachelet said, we are not unique and Chile's struggles for quality health care, education and basic rights remain while much progress has been made.

How do we move to becoming 'we' instead of 'them' and 'us' and find the proverbial 'common space' of nationhood? From the common space the poor and marginalised move back to the unjust life of shacks and poverty so nation-building and justice are instrinsically linked, she argued.

Yet Chile was not afraid to embrace 'soft power' in attempting to deal with its brutal past. 'The year I was born' is a particularly powerful piece of theatre in which a Chilean cast attempts to reconstruct 1973 and the lives of their parents when Pinochet came to power in a coup d'état in that year. The power of theatre has made it possible for both young and old to start confronting the past. Similarly, youth and education programmes were used systematically but in ways that confronted the truth about the past. But human rights should happen not only in formal schooling but throughout society, be it through centres for memory, religious institutions and media.

Bachelet argues that as South Africans we should not fear a return to apartheid, and so seeking to deal with the past now cannot hurt us. We are unable, she believes, to go back to the days of apartheid and therefore ought to feel confident and comfortable in attempts to go back and right the wrongs. Except that the wrongs are both economic and social. What South Africans are probably most afraid of is a regression of democracy itself and that our democratic institutions will be unable to deal with the strain of the present, unsolvable without social solidarity and some form of sacrifice by those who hold power both politically and economically. It is that paralysis and possible opaque path that we fear may undo the 1994 settlement.

As Bachelet repeatedly emphasised, dealing with the past requires leadership that offers a coherent history and path for the country as a whole. If we are to be brutally honest, we have to admit that we had such leadership, yet our current leaders are to be found wanting as they often seek to invoke the opportunistic liberatory language of the past to paper over the cracks of the present.

Antjie Krog probably says it best in Country of grief and grace when she writes,

but if the old is not guilty

does not confess

then of course the new can also not be guilty

nor be held accountable

if it repeats the old

things may then continue as before

but in a different shade

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). She was part of the dialogue with President Bachelet held at Mandela Rhodes Place last month entitled, 'Reckoning with oppressive pasts, making liberatory futures: the questions of economy and inequality.'

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