At the moment, South Africa is once again engulfed in scandal and intrigue resulting from the revelations of a newly-published book. I say ‘once again’ because it was only 4 months ago that we were all feverishly hunting any remaining copies of that scurrilous “Mandela’s Last Days” book which Graca Machel saved us from.
This time around, it’s a book by esteemed investigative journalist Jacques Pauw. “The President’s Keepers” is everything Max Du Preez promises it will be in his quote on the cover: “dynamite”. I’m not going into that here; I’m currently reading the book and at the same time watching the gangsters at our country’s helm scuttle around live on TV news desperately searching for darker corners.
Jacques Pauw’s revelatory book, which could soon become a scarce commodity if certain government institutions have their way, arrived in my house almost at the same time as another piece of writing started doing the social media rounds, a year-old piece by political analyst Prince Mashele entitled “South Africa is just another African country”.
Conflating these two pieces of writing makes for a view of the current and future South Africa that is at once both fascinating and frightening. Pauw’s reportage unveils the depravity at the core of the country’s leadership, while Mashele’s editorial is a somewhat satirical ‘meh’ about the unexceptional ‘African-ness’ of it all, by an African (read: ‘black’) writer. With Pauw, one is encouraged to bewail the unstoppable destruction of South Africa at the hands of those we once trusted to protect us. With Mashele, one is consoled with ‘relax, this is just Africa, this is what you get if you want to live here’.
My reading inspired me to write about what it felt like as a South African to be wrestling with these heady things, but it turned out to be quite a struggle. One has to tread extremely lightly in these politically hysterical “woke twitter” days. My angst stems from “yes, I do want to live here”. I’m from here, dammit. The question is, do I have a right to expect South Africa to be governed in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed?
Mashele’s thoughts immediately transported me back to my university years on the eve of a newly-democratic South Africa. An idealistic undergraduate (is there any other kind?), I chose every possible African option for my politics major. Kant’s Pure Reason could go hang as long as I could get to grips with why African states seemed perpetually doomed to failure.
I learned much about ‘African-ness’ in those courses, especially from the brilliant Professor Samuel Decalo, an expert on the nature of the African coup d’etat and the phenomenon of army rule. I remember high-mindedly concluding that Africa was and is always going to be ‘African’, and that the insistence of us Europeans that Africa play by the Western rules of democracy would ultimately prove futile.
All these years later, Prince Mashele and Jacques Pauw have me considering whether I might actually have been onto something after all. As Mashele notes, South Africa is actually, funnily enough, an ‘African’ country. The vast majority of its citizens are Africans, with traditional African ‘ways’. The concepts of ‘democracy’, a ‘constitution’, ‘the state’, a ‘capitalist economy’, are all Western ideas of ‘how to get along’ that were imposed on this part of the continent by European colonists, the descendents of whom hundreds of years later insist that the Africans sustain these ideas by means of other Western ideals such as ‘logic’ and ‘reason’.
Prince Mashele’s piece, which must have given the author a bruised cheek from having to poke it with his tongue the whole time he was writing, nevertheless suggests something of fundamental importance regarding the future of this country:
Africans and their leaders don’t like to copy from the West. They are happy to remain African, and do things “the African way”. The African way is rule by kings, chiefs and indunas in a setting of unwritten rules. Is there anyone who has seen a book of African customary laws?
Modern South Africans across the board are perpetually up in arms about the state of the nation, the fate of the Beloved Country while it remains in the hands of a criminal, immoral and thoroughly corrupt elite. Civil society and opposition parties have from April 28 1994 been haranguing the ANC government to ‘play nice’. The temperature is at boiling point now, 23 years later, because South Africa has become almost exactly what the nay-sayers feared it would: a failed state. Worse, a ‘typical African’ failed state.
As Prince Mashele suggests, “What makes most people restless about the future of SA is that they have Western models in mind, forgetting that ours is an African country.”
Here’s my question: is South Africa really a degenerating democracy, or is it just quietly going the way of all Africa?
I am proud to call myself a South African. Sure, I’m of European descent, like any ‘white’ person anywhere in the world, but I was born and raised in Africa, and I want to continue believing the best for my poor Beloved Country. But surely what I really mean is that I want Western ideals of governance to succeed here, right? Here, on a continent where Western ideals have all died slow, painful, expensive deaths.
Is it racist to for me, a ‘white’ African, to agree with Prince Mashele that somehow the slow deterioration of South Africa is somehow an endemically ‘African’ inevitability? To be sure, if I had personally suggested that, I could easily be Penny Sparrowed into infamy by the witch hunters of social media. No, the reason Mashele’s piece got me thinking is, if South Africa is indeed on some quintessentially ‘African’ path away from Western concepts of governance and citizenship, what’s in it for me?
Must I spend the rest of my days watching my the beautiful country of my birth become more and more like its shriveled neighbours? Or must I, as an ‘ex-European’, consider living out the back half of my life in Europe or the US, on land that I do not and will never feel in my DNA? Is Mashele right? Can Western democracy truly distinguish South Africa from the rest of the continent, or will African tribalism prevail? Are we destined to go the way of Zimbabwe after all? If so, can I still love my country, however much it degenerates into the inept kleptocracy it already has become? With the spectre of ‘failed state’ looming so large on the horizon?
Is this even ‘my country’? Anymore? Was it ever?
Heck, is it any of ours, other than the gangsters’?
This is obviously just one person thinking aloud. I don’t know how many other South Africans, black, white or whatever, routinely think these things. I often feel alone in these thoughts. Many white people I share these things with are quietly counting the days with one eye on the escape hatch, while the majority of black people I talk with are focusing more on getting through one day at a time, leaving the chiefs and indunas to do what chiefs and indunas do. For the vast majority of South Africans, this is it.
I don’t believe that. We can do better, and we can all win. We’ve done it before. As Jacques Pauw writes so inspiringly in the middle of his shocking book:
South Africans are resilient people and shine in the face of adversity. A vibrant civil society, a belligerent opposition, a fiercely sovereign judiciary, disillusioned elements within the ruling party and an independent media – fed leaks and information by whistleblowers at the heart of the Zuma campaign – are defying his ultimate quest to capture the vital organs of state.
Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.