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A BBC journalist noted that “South Africa has rather fallen off the radar”. This was similar to comments voiced by former anti-apartheid activists and by several one-time strugglista exiles, mainly in London, who never returned home to settle. Because, in the mainstream media of Europe, there is little mention of South Africa: and, after six weeks abroad, it was, for me, a useful reminder of how minor is our role in global political and economic affairs.
And the moral high ground bequeathed to the country and its post-apartheid government by the global struggle against apartheid, has also all but evaporated, depositing a residue of concern and disillusionment among many of those who once saw South Africa as a global beacon of hope. “What on earth is happening there?” was a common query, expressed by those who seek out what news they can of the country. It is not that their hopes have soured and curdled to deep cynicism; they seem puzzled and confused.
But while many express concern, they have also to get on with their present lives without spending too much time worrying about events on Africa’s southern tip.
Trade unionists in particular, faced with falling real wages and more promised austerity in the months to come, have battles enough of their own to face, whether in Greece, Spain, Italy, Britain or elsewhere.
And, much like South African trade unions, the European organisations tend to be reactive rather than proactive.
So, in Britain there was no mass protest when the Conservative Party government announced that the 500-year-old postal service, the Royal Mail, would be privatised.
Only after the sale did the Communication Workers Union announce a strike, an echo of the belated e-tolling protest by Cosatu. But the deal on Royal Mail – as with e-tolling – was done.
In Britain, the main cry of the opposition Labour Party, which, like the ANC, is a member of that ideological polyglot, the Socialist International, was that the Royal Mail service had been sold too cheaply. It probably was.
In a repeat of the sale three decades earlier of the highly efficient and profitable parastatal, British Gas, thousands of working people bought shares in the grossly over-subscribed Royal Mail offer – and sold them within a week for a neat profit. At least, this time round, there was no talk about the sale signalling the advent of a “share-owning democracy”.
The sale and the reaction to it by unions, the Labour Party and the host of worker share buyers and sellers seemed, superficially, to indicate an at least grudging acceptance of the status quo. But surveys reveal widespread disgruntlement with politicians and their politics, and indicate rather the lack of any perceived alternative; of any realistic beacon of hope.
For men and women who devoted sometimes much of their youth to the South African struggle, the loss by South Africa of the moral imperative, of the hopes and dreams of the anti-apartheid struggle, is deeply felt and often resented.
Yet the connection – and some hope – remains, usually centred on that icon of the period, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
So when Mandela was rushed to hospital in June in a serious condition and the world’s media congregated, metaphorically at his bedside, plans were laid in London for a theatrical tribute to the man who embodied the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a large part of a generation. The South Bank Centre booked its near 1 000-seat Queen Elizabeth II hall for a one-night tribute as part of its autumn season.
Although not stated, this was clearly envisaged as a fitting farewell to an icon, with 22 poets, authors, actors and singers, including Brand South Africa’s local emissary, John Battersby, on stage to perform and to read 27 extracts from Mandela’s autobiographical Long Walk to Freedom.
Author and playwright Sindiwe Magona, poets Lebo Mashile and Leeto Thale and opera star Joyce Moholoagae shared the stage with the likes of Britain’s Linton Kwesi Johnson, Nigeria’s Ben Okri and Shingai Shonwina, lead vocalist of the Noisettes. Also on hand were long-time exile authors Gillian Slovo, Beverley Naidoo and Marion Molteno.
It was almost – but not quite – the putting of a full stop to the narrative of an era. And many in that audience, some of them linked to the trade union movement, do not now see South Africa as a failed state or even as a particularly troubled country; South Africa now seems to be seen as just another of those territories around the world that may be a bit better than some and perhaps somewhat worse than others.
The symbols of this concern can be summed up in a series of labels: Marikana, Nkandla, arms deal, corruption, impunity. But the memory of promise lingers, the beacon of hope retains, for some, the perhaps still faint flicker of light.
For all the turmoil in our domestic labour movement, the substance of this hope appears to lie with the South African trade unions. Given my personal experience over the past week, it is a hope that may not be misplaced.
The first SMS I received when I returned came from National Council of Trade Unions president Joseph Maqhekeni, raising the possibility of a new, united and independent labour movement. Talks along these lines were under way among a number of unions, he confirmed.
The country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, despite considerable stale and jargon-ridden rhetoric, also plans to question the whole basis of the way forward.
And, in Cape Town last night, the Centre for Conflict Resolution staged a discussion on the future of trade unions – a future, I argue, that is inextricably bound up with the future of democracy.
That last flicker of the beacon may simply splutter out. Or it may flare briefly before dying. It could also blaze again as a global symbol of a better life for all. Only time will tell.