Our fast-deteriorating country deserves better than the crass mediocrity we have been subjected to
We have steadily become an ungracious country – I’m loath to say nation, as we continue to kick and scratch against the need to coalesce as a nation even when things have been good.
We have generally become quite self-absorbed, with little consideration for those we feel we can simply exclude, including family and friends. Under the terrible and terrifying conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the infodemic of social media that we have often uncritically relied on, the best and the worst in us, have come to the fore.
As we mark Human Rights Day, we need to pause during our holiday to acknowledge those who paid the ultimate sacrifice – from colonialism to apartheid – in ushering in this democracy we enjoy. Only the most mean-spirited and ungenerous will claim that not much has changed with the advent of democracy, which has seen freedom and constitutional guarantees of human rights for all, irrespective of their social, ethnic, economic or other status.
There is much to be angered by, especially when confronted by inept public servants and incompetent political leadership and appointees. However, have we not allowed this state of affairs to develop over time? Have we not surrendered our agency to the self-indulgent and egotistical voices we have given credence to, and, when we reach breaking point we just burst out?
In an unrelenting period of intense factional fratricide, let alone narrow sectarian politics, we would do well to recall that March 21 and June 16 were only declared national public holidays in December 1995, after there were strenuous objections to these days being left out of the official South African calendar in mid-1994.
Thursday June 16, 1994 arguably saw the largest number of South Africans displaying their agency (which we sadly seem to have lost), staying away from work and spontaneously commemorating this seminal moment in our history.
Worldwide, the December 10 is observed as Human Rights Day in recognition of the UN adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on that day in 1948. In a symbolic act then president Nelson Mandela signed our Constitution at the site of the Sharpeville massacre on December 10, 1996. Vintage Madiba, which we have been sorely bereft of since his leaving office.
Unfortunately, partisan politics have usually impacted our public sensibilities, resulting in such ridiculous claims of “We liberated you” when the facts are demonstrably different. The Nazi Göring said in the Nuremburg Trial “The victor will always be the judge” and the colonialist Churchill is reputed to have said “History is written by the victors”. Whatever the case, in a deeply fractured country such as ours we need to acknowledge contributions to the liberation of our country, despite our own political views.
My cohort of younger prisoners in Robben Island had lengthy engagements with the late Walter Sisulu and Madiba, with whom we were incarcerated, on why there was such antipathy to marking the March 21, when we organised its commemoration in 1978. The South African Students Organisation (Saso) of which Steve Biko was founding president), had organised the first public commemoration of this day on Sunday, March, 21, 1971 at the University of Natal, Black Section, and we continued to do so even behind bars.
From the accounts that we got in Robben Island, the history of the Freedom Charter influenced the eventual breakaway (or expulsion, depending on who tells the story) of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), that the ANC had called for an anti-pass campaign on March 31 at its December 1959 conference, and that the PAC had embarked on its own anti-pass campaign 10 days earlier! This background was intended to minimise the negative utterances that had been made then.
The ANC on October 25, 1956 stated that “There is nothing in the country that makes an African a prisoner, irrespective of his social standing in the community although he is outside the prison walls, more than the operation of the pass laws … The Freedom of movement of the African is denied under this law, not only from country to town but from one town to another. Drastic limitations are imposed on his economic capabilities.”
Sections 10 and 29 of these notorious provisions that pre-dated formal apartheid continued to be applied to all Africans once they reached 16 years of age until the late 1980s.
“No bail, no defence, no fine” was the “positive action” that PAC president Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe affirmed in May 1959. The intention was for Africans to defy carrying a pass and present themselves for mass arrest at police stations. This would severely impact the apartheid police and court system, abolishing the hated pass laws, then establishing a minimum wage, and lead to the end of white rule. The Commissioner of Police was notified on March 16, 1960, of this “sustained, disciplined, non-violent campaign” and that despite “trigger-happy, African-hating” police, marchers would disperse if they were given explicit orders and sufficient time to disperse. At a press conference on March 18, Sobukwe was certain that marchers would observe “absolute non-violence” but that if the apartheid system so desired, they would have the “opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be”. He proclaimed “We are ready to die for our cause.”
After 69 mostly unarmed women, children and elderly men were shot mainly in the back and some 180 injured at Sharpeville, and the thousands protested in Soweto, Langa, Cato Manor and other places, the Verwoerd regime declared a State of Emergency on March 30. On April 8 the ANC and PAC were banned, indelibly changing the trajectory of the liberation struggle from protest to armed activity.
South African exceptionalism – where we still delude ourselves into believing we are unique and special in the world out there that cares naught for issues we may be caught up in – enables us to perpetuate self-inflicted greatness, and when we cannot get our way, we turn nasty, trashing the achievements of others, especially those who contributed to us being a free democratic country. No matter what we have done with the latter, which is a story for another time.
We are also quick to make excuses for wrongdoing and neatly explaining away the horrors of what we have done to ourselves since democracy. Remember how there were so many commentators who blamed those who were shot in Marikana in 2012, defending the indefensible? But one of the albatrosses that current President Cyril Ramaphosa carries.
Then, too, we have dangerous displays of war-talk when our courts find against us, even when those pleading for their day in court, do everything to avoid their day in court, attacking the judiciary, that last vestige of integrity in our country. The immense burden and needless stress that many of our leaders plunge us into, making their personal agendas into our public concern, is a syndrome that we cannot afford to continue to become normalised.
Our fast-deteriorating country deserves better than the crass mediocrity we have been subjected to. We cannot afford to outsource our agency to those who would use it for their own ends, claiming to be doing it for the “people’s” benefit. It is time to restore excellence in all that we do, so that the foundations of our democracy grow apace to meet the enormous challenges our children confront. We can and must be the best we can be, consigning mediocrity, incompetence, and self-interest to where it rightfully belongs: the dust-heap.
* Professor Saths Cooper, PhD is past President International Union of Psychological Science IUPsyS, Board Member International Science Council ISC, President Pan-African Psychology Union PAPU, Extraordinary Professor University of Pretoria and Visiting Professor, University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.
*** Read more Human Rights Day stories here.