I REMEMBER the 1960s, when I’d come home from school to lunch. The talk was, as it still is, politics. The National Party had taken SA out of the Commonwealth. God Save the Queen no longer played at the end of the bioscope. My parents were incensed, but there had also been a murder near the Bashee Bridge on the N2, close enough to our Umtata home for my dad to buy a gun. The murders had been carried out by Poqo, an armed wing then of the Pan Africanist Congress. The response was swift and brutal.
“We might hate the Nats,” friends would say, “but thank God they’re there.” That same sentiment has an echo today. By then the Nats had been in power around 20 years. The ’70s were about to happen. Soweto, Biko. Mass unrest. The Nats were in power, but they were already losing control.
Just as the ANC is losing control now, 20 years into power and with technology rapidly speeding up change. In just the past week, the rand has gone on the slide, universities and schools are being burned, a deranged policeman is trying to arrest the finance minister on a charge — “espionage” — that doesn’t appear in our law, the rating agencies are in town, the governing party alliance is disintegrating, food prices are rising at 11% a year and speeding up that pace, Parliament has once again been the scene of violence and threat, and the president has been in Qatar raising money so his party can contest municipal elections in August in the manner to which it has become accustomed.
You have to love history. In 1976, the children started doing to the Nats what the children are doing to the ANC almost exactly 40 years later. You can almost hear the cries of “it isn’t fair!”, but it’s happening anyway, and for broadly the same reasons. Neglect, hubris and arrogance.
Sure, apartheid was uniquely disgusting, but where is justice for Andries Tatane, for the Marikana mine workers, for the HIV dead, children raped, farmers butchered?
It is easy to be negative amid the mess SA has become. But don’t be. This was always inevitable. The horrors and the damage visited upon most South Africans for centuries were beyond measure.
Anyone who thought democracy was going to be a walk in the park wasn’t paying attention.
In many ways, Jacob Zuma epitomises the damage done. Standing, or sitting, astride the mess, he is frozen. He cannot act. He wants to move, but he has no room. It is too late. One more poor decision and he costs the country its sovereignty.
Ask Angola, once a model of development, a 21st century African reverie, now a ward of the IMF. In just a few swift months.
Zuma is at heart a spy. Paranoia is a part of his being and part of why he is still alive. The thought of the IMF (read, the Americans) standing on his doorstep is truly horrific. Yet in his panic at the prospect, he cannot see the obvious way out. Poor economic policies see unemployment at eye-watering levels, higher even than they were at the end of apartheid. His escape route beckons, but he looks back longingly at what might have been, like in a movie.
The escape-route door is being held open by the Treasury and its head, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Sensible policy, cautious spending, saving for the future, including a nuclear future. Welfare for millions.
It’s all there and all possible. But not tomorrow. He can’t have his cake and eat it.
Standing in front of the door, he turns back to gaze at the dream. Untold personal wealth, as befits a president who has suffered so much for his people, close friends running sparkling state-owned airlines and energy companies, a son rising to the top of the mining business, a policeman dressed to the nines, telling him his every wish is a command, a finance minister excited to the point of apoplexy by all of his ideas about economic growth. He turns, beginning to step away from the door.
But, once turned, he looks back. What to do? What to do?
Indeed, what would you do? The ANC has never been so weak. Zuma, as he stands there, can literally do what he wants. He can save the country and his reputation and legacy. But you can’t eat a reputation. Or, he can feed Gordhan to the lions and feast, however briefly, on the riches that will rain upon him and his friends with the gatekeeper out of the way.
• Bruce is editor in chief.