A US marine in protective suit and gas mask rests in a foxhole after an Iraqi Scud missile alert in the northern Kuwaiti desert in 2003. The writer says Americans failed themselves with the Iraq War. File picture: Damir Sagolji

America’s war on Iraq proved that the strongest democracy can make mistakes and fail its people. South Africa can’t let the same happen, says Hamilton Wende.

Johannesburg - To see the world through a gas mask is to view it refracted through a prism of deep uncertainty, even fear. Back in 2003, at the end of the Iraq War, I was one of the television journalists selected to be on what was called “the WMD pool” – the weapons of mass destruction pool.

There were a number of us who took turns waiting at the Hilton Hotel in Kuwait for a US military helicopter to land and whisk us into the Iraqi desert to film the piles of gas shells, anthrax-laden missiles or even putative nuclear weapons. At first, it was terribly exciting to be part of this group – we even got special training and an NBC (nuclear biological and chemical) protective suit from the US military.

During this training I found slipping the gas mask over my head disorienting and claustrophobic. Although the practice was taking place in the perfectly safe environment of the hotel parking lot, I found my heart beating uncomfortably every time I pulled on the mask and peered at my colleagues through the protective eyepiece.

The feeling was something more than claustrophobia; there was no guarantee that if that helicopter did land us in the desert alongside a stockpile of toxic weapons, we would be adequately protected.

It was a risk that I was willing to take for the possible reward of being one of the journalists who would be the first to record the crucial evidence of Saddam Hussein’s deadly illegal arsenal. I was sceptical that such an arsenal existed, but, at the time, there remained the theoretical possibility that it might.

Of course, no helicopter ever landed on the lawns of the Hilton to pick us up. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Whatever the unambiguous cruelty of Saddam was, the enormity of the great American lie about Iraq was revealed in all its naked horror.

Hundreds of thousands of people died and a society was destroyed because George W Bush and his cohorts did not tell the truth to their people or the world.

The democratic engine of the US, the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, was not able to prevent this disgraceful tragedy. Neither Congress, nor the Senate, nor the media, nor public opinion was of any influence in preventing this fraudulent invasion of Iraq. The elected leaders of the US destroyed a country because they could, and they decided they wanted to.

The bitter lesson of this catastrophe is that democracies are not foolproof – they can fail their people disastrously.

South Africa is very far from such a disaster, but, 20 years into our democracy, as we watch the notion of truth being so visibly corroded by those in power, I feel like I did back in Kuwait: that I am looking at our country through the refracted lenses of a gas mask. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty and fear that there is no guarantee that the protections built into our constitution will work in the future.

Nkandla is not Iraq, but there is a deeply disturbing notion growing that truth is owned by the leadership of the ANC. That they are above being questioned, and that they can do what they like because they decide they want to and no one has the power to stop them.

We need to remind ourselves as citizens that if the established democracy of the US could fail so ruinously as it did, then our young democracy could well be equally threatened one day.

We need also, though, not to succumb to cynicism and despair in the face of so many obvious lies. We need to maintain our faith that we can rescue our society from those who have become too powerful and unaccountable. Barack Obama has restored some faith in American democracy. There are a number of questionable things that his administration has done, but as his openness over Syria, for example, demonstrates, America today is not the dark, secretive republic of untruths that it was under Bush.

We were able to emerge from the lies of apartheid, and we should never forget that while the leadership of the ANC under Nelson Mandela was key to defeating apartheid, they were not the only ones who struggled. There were other parties and other brave individuals who despised the ruthlessness of apartheid and fought against it in their own way.

The ANC – by the recent admission of a number of its top leaders – is no longer what it was. We should be thankful for these brave, principled leaders willing to speak out. When Bush and his right-wing Republicans neo-cons concocted their lies and defied the UN, there was no one in the party who stood up to them. Not even the seemingly decent Colin Powell was willing to stand up for the truth.

They used the cruel terrorist tragedy of 9/11 to justify their own brutality. The ANC cannot be allowed to use the cruelty of apartheid to justify their misdeeds.

Bush and his neo-cons were allowed to get away literally with murder because too many people in the US were frightened.

With the Iraq war, Americans failed themselves.

We are not at this point, and we should never forget that, but we cannot rely on the power structures of the ANC to restore a respect for the truth. That is something we must demand of them ourselves.

* Hamilton Wende is a Joburg-based commentator.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star