One of the unexpected outcomes of the last few years of governance related turmoil is that the usual pre-election political rhetoric seems almost tame by comparison. It’s been quite a ride and the SA voting public has either switched off or become more politically aware than ever, depending on who you speak to. For example, young voters are visibly mobilised around issues such as tertiary education and jobs and on the other hand IEC data shows voter registration at the lowest in at least a decade among voters aged 18 to 29 with polls estimating around 19% of voters are unmotivated.
One thing is certain – the 2019 election is a key battlefield and a test of how voters perceive the outcome of the political and financial governance battles of the last few years. For many the position though seems to be that they are close to giving up on the ideal of a prosperous, peaceful, stable South Africa. Corruption’s acceleration over the last decade together with an economy seemingly stuck in slug mode have left many feeling powerless regardless of load shedding. Add to this the structural unemployment, high levels of crime, dangerously over stretched public services and political battles and it seems our national potential has met its match. So let’s put on some '80s tracks (how is it possible that '80s music is still going so strong?) and ponder a few things that happened since then.
Firstly – we didn’t become Syria. This point cannot be over-stated. For years we were part of the three intractable conflicts globally – Palestine, South Africa and Northern Ireland. Now only one remains. Secondly – we actually gave up active nuclear weapons. Yes, it's old news, but just think it through. The US destroyed Iraq and is beating Iran up over this and yet we dismantled ours. Thirdly – the baby nation of 1994 managed to merge a disparate collection of provincial and "homeland" administrations and reshuffle them into nine new provinces. Then we merged a wild system of racial administration cutting across health, education and all other parts of life into one unified nonracial bureaucracy. Anyone who has ever worked in an organisation of greater than a few hundred humans will get what we pulled off there. We further wrote a groundbreaking negotiated constitution that is literally respected planet wide and shepherded it through a crazy few years. I mean we even have judicially enforced socio-economic rights. Without being cheesy, in 50 or 150 years this may be seen as a turning point for constitutionalism.
The framers of our Constitution’s checks and balances and related Chapter nine institutions managed to build a system that weathered one of the worst post-independence state capture storms a country could go through. Once again, this is the stuff future constitutional students will be writing exams on down the line.
Talk about turning swords into ploughshares – we took the continent’s most fearsome military machine and made it into a pillar of African peacekeeping. A machine that previously sowed destruction across Southern Africa, destruction some of our neighbours are still recovering from.
And the Syria thing again – yes there are those who are stoking racial hatred now but do you remember those who used to stoke racial hatred then? Their road led to Syria. Compared to that outcome, the pressures and strains that our political life and public services and infrastructure have been increasingly going through is not as bad. Yes some things could have been handled better and there’s definitely room for change but all things considered the country has come through such a fundamental transition quite well so far. It was not guaranteed.
New things are being birthed, for example dictionaries for many of SA’s official languages are expanding as the Department of Arts and Culture’s teams of experts carefully craft beautiful new words and terms for previously Anglised versions. Lastly, have you been watching the kids? I have a few and their world is a different planet. Yes, its reach is influenced by class, but still, to walk past a giggling group of multiracial kids is a seriously powerful thing for those who remember.
And in place of the programming, we have a unique treasure emerging from the clay of the massive negative social engineering experiment of the past. Ponder this – the groups represented roughly by the 11 official languages have hardly ever in centuries of global history had to engage each other directly in this way, at this scale. It is almost unprecedented. The potential for innovation and dynamism arising from this cultural fusion is something new, something exceptional. So as you vote this week, do so with a smile. It might be a weary and battered smile, but vote with the knowledge that you are privileged to be living through one of the most breathtaking sub-chapters of human history.
* Wolfe Braude is a researcher and sometime political scientist who lurks on the fringes of public discourse and who has been blessed to have worked in academia, the labour movement, government, and the private sector. He tweets as @BraWolfe
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.