The days and weeks before us will be crucial for Cyril Ramaphosa and his future as president. Here we have to do with people who do not hesitate to promote racial violence and ethnic mobilisation in an effort to save their own skins.
Today, in the wake of celebrating Mandela Day, South Africa is once again in a stranglehold. It reminds me of the circumstances around the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993.
The award-winning poet and playwright Adam Small wrote these prophetic words in the introduction to the Hertzog Prize-winning drama Kanna Hy Kô Hystoe:
“O waar, waar is Moses… die wêreld se manne sit in die knyp/maar Moses het simplie sy stok gegryp/en geskrou op die volk /en geloep met die volk…” (Where, oh where is Moses… the world is in trouble, but Moses simply grabbed his staff, called his people and left with his people.)
It is words such as these that remind one that Small was also a prophet and philosopher, because after nearly six decades his words still hold true.
The assassination of Hani, the then secretary-general of the SACP, on 10 April 1993 in the driveway of his house in Boksburg led to unprecedented rioting and instability in the country.
It once again focused the attention of the international community on the political divisions in South Africa. The unrest threatened to derail Project Democracy; something which would finally isolate South Africa from the free world.
The nation was in trouble, in search of leadership.
Mandela — de facto president
It was time for decisive action. Nelson Mandela, who had already been freed after 27 years in prison, stepped forward as leader, even though he was not yet the president.
I remember the evening of 10 April 1993 like it was yesterday. Mandela addressed the nation on TV to address the conflict between white and black. He spoke with passion and drive, with energy and superhuman power. His speech was short, firm and forceful: “Tonight I reach out to each South African, black and white, from the depth of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and performed a deed so awful that our whole nation now hovers on the brink of disaster. A white woman of Afrikaner origin risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shockwaves through the country and the world… South Africans must unite against those… that wish to destroy what Chris Hani died for… the freedom of all of us.”
Mandela’s decisive action had the desired effect. The nation heeded. Afterwards, experts said that Mandela had become the de facto president of South Africa on 10 April 1993. According to Jeremy Cronin, then deputy secretary-general of the SACP, Mandela’s strong leadership prevented a civil war. It would eventually lead to the first democratic election in South Africa on 27 April 1994. Mandela was elected as president and together with Small, we could heave a sigh of relief, because “Now a Moses has arisen for you” (Kitaar My Kruis, 1962).
28 years later
Monday, 12 July 2021.
South Africa finds itself in a similar crisis. The roleplayers have changed slightly. Division between black and white has been replaced by division in the ranks of the governing party. The décor and the stage remain the same: the streets of South Africa are again littered with burning tyres, protesters and stones.
“O waar, waar is Moses… Die wêreld se manne vat ’n kans/maar Moses het simplie in ’n trans/moet die klippe na die volk gegaan/en by die klippe geval en gestaan…” (Where oh where is Moses… the world has taken a chance, but Moses simply went into a trance, took the stones to his people and fell by them and stood by them.)
Mandela’s chosen successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, addresses the nation, which is once again in search of leadership. He is much younger than Mandela was back then, but his body language is that of an old man, which is not surprising. He has been widely criticised for how he has handled the Covid-19 pandemic. Add to that the plundering and vandalism that have spread like wildfire in the middle of the pandemic. It must surely keep him awake at night. His broad smile has been replaced by a sombre expression. He talks without energy, in measured tones, as if he has already lost the fight…
What is going on in South Africa?
“What is going on in South Africa?” asks Braam Hanekom, director of the Centre for Public Witness, on social media. He responds to his own question: “The grass is dry.”
He explains: when grass is dry, anyone can light it with a match. It was a long drought. Some, says Hanekom, will differ over the source of the drought. Some say it was apartheid and colonialism. Others blame it on 25 years of corrupt management and looting by the ANC government. And others say it is former president Jacob Zuma’s last attempt to grasp populist power.
The instrument that Zuma and his followers used to achieve this is tribe and ethnicity. In the context of South Africa’s past of racial discrimination and division, it is a dangerous fire to light. Ramaphosa realises this: “These acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilisation and will not be tolerated.”
The police have already identified 12 instigators and arrests are expected. Zuma’s followers hope that these “fires” they have lit will keep them out of prison, says Crispin Sonn, businessman and son of Franklin Sonn, on social media. Because if Zuma is sentenced to prison, it is just a matter of time before the prison doors will close behind them, too.
Ramaphosa and his future as president
The days and weeks before us will be crucial for Ramaphosa and his future as president. Here we have to do with people who do not hesitate to promote racial violence and ethnic mobilisation in an effort to save their own skins.
Ramaphosa now has two huge challenges. The first is to stop the violence. The army can possibly do this within a few days. But South Africans have lost patience with poor service and an inept government owing to the ANC’s insistence on appointing cadres instead of capable people (of whom there is an abundance in our country) in crucial posts.
In a state of anarchy?
Over the past week, South Africans and the world have watched their TV screens and seen how thugs who have exploited the toxic political quarrel between two warring ANC factions have looted our shops. And this is while businesses are already staggering under the pandemic.
Most upsetting is the fact that the state machinery which was supposed to protect us and our property was absent. By the time the defence force turned up, most of the shops had already been cleared out by the thieves. It looked as if the police had neither the capacity nor the will to act against these thugs.
Ramaphosa’s second big challenge is the theft and corruption that have been committed by his own leadership corps on his watch. His hands are thus basically tied behind his back, leaving him powerless. His speech on 12 July, in which he addressed South Africans after the start of the rioting, had no impact. Even while he was speaking, the looting continued.
The subtext facing Ramaphosa is obvious: members of your management team themselves have plundered the state coffers. What is now happening is that the nation is simply following their example. So, when Ramaphosa asks citizens to cease their looting, he has no leg to stand on.
Like Moses of old, Ramaphosa has a choice: he can fall over his own feet (or the crimes of his colleagues), or he can stand by the Constitution and democracy. But then he will have to act much more strongly against the thugs — including those in his own ranks.
The contrary is not an option for South Africa. For we have too many enemies. The greatest enemy is they — in the words of the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu — who are prepared to burn their country to the ground so that they can reign over the ashes.
Whether Ramaphosa has the energy and willpower to act decisively as Mandela did, is an open question. Here and in the rest of the world, people wait with bated breath to see whether he has the ability to live up to his reputation as Mandela’s anointed. DM