OPINION: SA, Zuma and our missed opportunities
Former President Jacob Zuma dances and chants during the closing session of the ANC’s National General Council (NGC) in Durban.
(RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP)
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Many of us watched helplessly as former president Jacob Zuma, his Gupta handlers and their large army of enablers piloted South Africa into a sure socio-economic and political nose-dive.
We were not the only ones.
Friends of South Africa and other interested people in parts of Africa and the diaspora, around the world, remained glued to online news updates and to a plethora of social media groups sharing views and anecdotes on what was being done to South Africa; a country many had hoped would, after rising from the ashes of apartheid in the early 1990s, become an example to behold and a reliable torchbearer on many rights issues in Africa and globally.
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Some people laughed at us; others cried with us. The first ones laughed at us because Zuma demonstrated to them that we were just another African country, after all – with all the preconceived ideas – and that it was just a matter of time before our initial claims to South African exceptionalism would be proven to be shallow and that we’d be like the rest.
The second group cried with us because they had believed in the South African dream and, like many of us, had naively held onto the idea that South Africa would be the miracle country Africa was desperately in need of to prove to the world that not everything managed by Africans would soon turn into dust.
South Africans were powerless
Today, many are asking themselves, “If South Africa failed, where would we turn to? To Rwanda, which is said to be doing well under the firm hand of a president who changes the Constitution when it suits himself in order to extend his presidential mandate, ostensibly believing that only he can run that country, and who is known to show no mercy to political, media and civil society critics?”
Clearly angered, frustrated, and demanding that something be done about Zuma’s conduct, even from as far back as it emerged that some R245m in public funds had been spent to upgrade his vast rural homestead in Nkandla, South Africans were powerless.
Their actions were restricted to social media activism, civil society pickets outside government buildings and courts, strikes and marches in various cities and towns around the country. Apart from the country’s courts, which relied on institutions below them to investigate alleged crimes, prepare dockets and present cases to them for processing, only the governing ANC had the power to stop Zuma and his enablers in their steps.
But it chose not to.
No one outside the Zuma circle could rely on the SAPS, Commercial Crime Investigators, the Hawks, and the NPA, who had clearly been taken over by Zuma and his people.
Fast-forward a year later, Zuma is gone, well, more or less, and so are the Guptas and many – but not all – of the opportunistic enablers who allowed him the licence to place a decade long “pause” on South Africa’s post-apartheid development and transformation project.
Many developmental and transformation milestones we should have reached and left behind as we left apartheid further behind us have been missed.
As a result, we’re caught in debates and arguments on legacy issues that we should have sorted out long ago. Many South Africans remain trapped in poverty; the economy is stagnating; a growing generation of white South Africans born in the past twenty years or so increasingly wonder if there will be a future for them in a country whose corrective policies will continue to exclude them for as long as the backlog of our apartheid legacy remains great, thanks to the many opportunities squandered and missed during Zuma’s presidency.
These young “non-Blacks”, yet described in our preamble to the Constitution as being no less South African than the rest of us, and who should also benefit from the Constitutional promise to “improve the quality of life for all citizens and free the potential of each person”, will pay the price for the sins – no, scratch that – the crimes committed by Zuma and his people against the collective interests of all South Africans.
Social cohesion and harmony constitute a fundamental interest and right of all South Africans, united in their diversity, to live and prosper in a country devoid of unnecessary racial strife and conflict.
Now, as we face the 2019 general elections, the electoral choices facing South Africans seem endless but, in reality, they’re limited. They’re systemically limited by a bizarre limitation of presidential terms to individuals when South Africans do not vote for individuals; they vote for political parties. They’re also limited by the inability of opposition parties to imagine new, compelling ideas to take South Africa forward.
In the end, only an ANC with a revamped sales message, colourful slogans, emotionally manipulative use of icons such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Albertina Sisulu and others, has mastered the art of reminding voters through song and dance of many heroic stories of the anti-apartheid struggle, will come out the winner.
The structures, systems, processes, and institutions whose glaring vulnerabilities have been thoroughly exposed and abused by Zuma will remain in place. In five months, South Africans will again celebrate the arrival of a new team of the same and it will be just a matter of time before the expressions “would have, should have, could have, and opportunity costs” start to have meaning. But only time will tell.