We don’t have a good government or president right now. But that doesn’t mean we’re failing as a nation, says Max du Preez.
Do we South Africans suffer from an inferiority complex or self-loathing? Are most of us, black people included, closet Afro-pessimists?
I’m struggling to find explanations for the widespread pessimism about the future of South Africa. I’m not talking about the anger at corruption, abuse of power or ineffective administration. I’m talking about the hyperbolic predictions of becoming a failed state.
My column on this topic last week, rebuking an American lawyer who had declared on CNN that South Africa was a failing country, elicited much response in newspapers, on radio and in social media. I was heartened by the many who supported my stance, but the most vociferous were those who said I was living in a fool’s paradise or that I was sucking up to the ANC.
Those who have read my writings over the past decades must know that I’ve never been a sunshine journalist. The ANC has, just as the National Party did before 1994, called me an enemy of the people and an obsessive troublemaker on many occasions.
I’m certainly deeply disappointed at how the ANC has progressively abandoned its ideals and morality after it came to power; how it wasted the opportunities to deal decisively with our challenges of inequality, poverty and poor education. I’m angered at the smugness and apathy of so many in the business community and the white minority.
I’m alarmed at all the red lights flashing, at our inability to deal with the fundamental fault lines in our society and what they imply for our future. I documented these meticulously in my recent book, A Rumour of Spring.
But I really, really don’t believe for a second that we’re doomed; that we’re about to become a failed state.
I still have a child in primary school. She is my most important responsibility in life. If I were not sure she could have a fulfilling, decent life in South Africa in the decades ahead, I would have planned a future for her elsewhere.
We don’t have a good government or president right now. But that doesn’t mean we’re failing as a nation. Our country has many failings, some of them very serious. That doesn’t make us a failed state. There is no such thing as a country or society without failings. We should not compare ourselves to pristine states like Sweden or Germany, but to comparable states like Turkey, India, Brazil, Nigeria, even Russia.
We are an open society and they never become failed states. Twenty years after liberation, freedom and democracy are entrenched in the hearts of our citizens. We will not allow anyone to take these away from us.
We have a rock-solid constitution that is hard to change and a credible judicial system guarding it. We have free and diverse media and we have successfully thwarted efforts to undermine freedom of speech. Our civil society is energetic and determined, and has a democratic space in which to operate.
Exactly 20 years ago, a powerful armed force under Constand Viljoen invaded Bophuthatswana with ambitious plans to destroy our prospects of a political settlement. Today, right-wing extremism is reduced to a few loonies on the internet.
Have we forgotten that we have never once since South Africa became a state in 1910 stepped over the abyss; as the old saying goes, the worst never happens in South Africa. We had our Arab Spring in the 1980s. But our leaders steered us into a democratic settlement rather than a situation similar to that now prevailing in states like Libya, Egypt and Syria.
I remember an encounter I had in December 2012 with a Zimbabwean fruit packer whom I had witnessed throwing a petrol bomb during the workers’ strike in De Doorns. He admitted sheepishly that he would not have dared behave like that in his home country – it would simply not be tolerated.
The fact that communities are protesting virtually every week is disturbing, but it is also proof that we still are a democratic society and we let our voices be heard when we’re unhappy.
If enough of us believe we need a change in government, we can vote our present government out of office on May 7. The legitimacy of our elections is never in doubt. Everybody, from supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters to the Freedom Front Plus, will have a voice in Parliament after May.
The state of our nation is indeed worrying. But we have all the tools and institutions – and a freedom-loving citizenry – to deal with anything thrown our way.
We’re probably not going to live up to our full potential, but we’re not about to go down the tubes.