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Financial Times perspective: The idea of South Africa continues to battle the reality

South Africans are still waiting; for jobs, equality, selfless leadership, courageous action, for a faster realization of the ideals of our nobly wrought Constitution, for more evidence of Archbishop Tutu’s ‘Rainbow Nation.’ This commentary by Financial Times writer, David Pilling, sums it up for any South African with a shred of integrity and hope of a better future. The ANC’s ‘a better life for all,’ is today a grotesque parody of the ideals the liberation movement once boasted. Yet we have a lot to be proud of; key institutions have held firm, though the constant gnawing at their foundations and manipulation of appointments do threaten. It’s hard to outdo Pilling’s summary of societal disappointment…;”it has remained the most unequal society on Earth, as divided economically as it was during apartheid when racial inequality was the whole point. And how dispiriting that the ANC, having demolished a hideous system, should have proved so flawed, so venal and so incapable.” – Chris Bateman

By David Pilling

It is easy to despair about South Africa. The death of Desmond Tutu is a reminder of how lofty the aspirations for a post-apartheid society were and how far the realities have veered from those ideals.

While the archbishop advocated a society in which black and white could flourish, what South Africa got, by his own account, was one where “too many of our people live in gruelling, demeaning, dehumanising poverty”.

He once told The New York Times: “Many of the things that we dreamed were possible seem to be getting more and more out of reach.” Later, he berated then president Jacob Zuma, who from 2009 led the country down a disastrous path of state-sponsored corruption and institutional vandalism: “You and your government don’t represent me.”

You do not need to have the moral compass of “the Arch” to recognise what a let-down the past 27 years have been. South Africa once inspired the world by appearing to show that peaceful transition from a police state to a modern, racially tolerant “rainbow nation” was possible.

How disappointing then that the country, striving for social equality, should have remained the most unequal society on Earth, as divided economically as it was during apartheid when racial inequality was the whole point. And how dispiriting that the ANC, having demolished a hideous system, should have proved so flawed, so venal and so incapable.

Yet the aspirations are not dead. Like the US, modern South Africa is an idea as much as a country, an idea brilliantly articulated by Tutu and his generation, crystallised by its constitution, debated by its writers and artists and defended by its institutions.

Like the US, another country whose realities so often disappoint, South Africans are forever staring in the mirror of their better selves.

The realities of modern-day South Africa — unemployment, crime, slums, violence, corruption — make it a “powder keg”, Tutu warned. If the economy does not grow, if wrongdoers are not punished and if wealth and opportunity are not shared, things may indeed spiral downwards.

Yet if there are forces pulling South Africa towards the abyss, there are others drawing it in the opposite direction. Even during the dark Zuma years, institutions including the constitutional court, the independent press, the public protector’s office, the central bank and pockets of the civil service and government itself held firm.

Just this week, an 874-page report by Judge Raymond Zondo into so-called “state capture” during the Zuma years landed with a thud. It laid out in excruciating detail how Zuma’s administration sought to distort the procurement process, capture institutions such as the tax office and loot state-owned enterprises. Throughout, the interests of Zuma and his cronies, including most notoriously the Indian-born Gupta family, were put above those of ordinary South Africans.

Both Zuma and the Guptas have denied all allegations. Yet in the battle of competing narratives, a majority of South Africans will believe Zondo’s report. Most will hope that prosecutions follow, as is now the stated intention.

Anyone who doubts the pull of South Africa’s better angels should consider the constitutional court, which stayed rock solid during the Zuma years. Among its rulings, the court, founded in 1995, ordered the president to pay back state money used to upgrade his private residence and castigated him for failing “to uphold, defend and respect the constitution”.

The very architecture of the court, constructed from the bricks of a former Johannesburg prison, is a reminder of whence South Africa came and where it still aspires to go.

In the former jail, political prisoners and ordinary criminals were housed in conditions that depended on the colour of their skin. Food was dispensed in three buckets, with the best rations for white prisoners, the second best for so-called “coloureds”, and the worst for black inmates. In the nearby women’s jail, black “offenders”, some merely in breach of outlandish segregation laws, were routinely humiliated through the denial of sanitary pads.

Today, the bricks that housed those prisoners have been converted into an architectural masterpiece, flooded with light, dotted with art and open to public scrutiny. The court is a monument to the ideals that brought apartheid down.

Institutions are still vulnerable. Only this month, the parliament in Cape Town was set ablaze and windows of the constitutional court were attacked with a hammer.

“The universe can take quite a long time to deliver,” Tutu once said. Despite the odds, South Africans are still waiting.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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