Can a country that has grown weary of politics and politicians rediscover the passion for politics that saved it from civil war.
Spending a week in South Africa provides a timely reminder that politics matters. A trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is also a reminder that politics in this country is still raw and visceral and that here the tumultuous events of the recent past still define the present. It is a superb museum and worth the detour not least to be reminded that what happened here in the 1990s was one of the most remarkable transitions in the modern era. And that politics, now such a maligned profession in much of the world, can deliver- against the odds-extraordinary results.
That is not to suggest that South Africa emerged from its revolution a model of democracy and good governance. Public life here is as venal and frustrating as it is elsewhere and the electorate as apathetic and sceptical. But it was politics – committed people persuading others of the validity of their argument until they have built sufficient trust to find common ground – not violence which found the means of ending Apartheid. Spend an hour in this building just down the road from Soweto and you cannot fail to be humbled and inspired by how vision, persistence, courage and some luck combined to transform a country for the better.
It also left me unsettled. The museum does not gratuitously set out to invoke white guilt but it does show how ordinary people accepted the status-quo of Apartheid and that the regime was supported for so long not so much due to extreme ideological conviction but because ordinary white South Africans found it easier to avoid contemplating an alternative. I remember reading Steve Biko’s book, I write what I like, in the early 1980s in which he argues that white liberals are part of the problem and that the best they can do is get out of the way. I found it an uncomfortable read.
This week also saw the screening of the History Channel’s new documentary on South Africa, Miracle Rising. Like the Apartheid Museum it reminded me how much of what happened I had forgotten, not least the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I would like to think that if I had spent nearly three decades of the best years of my life locked in jail that I would have the emotional maturity and political savvy to forgive my jailers and avoid the easy politics of retribution. But to be honest I am not sure I would.
The documentary also provides a granular look at the negotiations between the ANC and the government in which AnnaPurna Consulting’ Director, Roelf Meyer played a key role. Spending time with Roelf, I realise that when it comes to patience, we are spinning in different orbits. The normal daily round of traffic jams, airline check-in queues and internet connections that don’t leaves me on the verge of a tantrum and in need of medication. Roelf floats above the fray. If you have sat across the table for months on end with Cyril Ramaphosa and found a way by which sworn enemies can come together to craft a new nation (and become firm friends), then the frustrations that drive the rest of us to distraction seem to count for little.
Such a remarkable historical legacy is also a burden for South Africa. When you have achieved so much, it must be easy to rest on one’s laurels. Given the enormous challenges that South Africa now faces in terms of social inequality, education and increasingly being a low growth country on a high growth continent, now is the time to find anew the same quality of leadership that saved the country twenty years ago.
There are some hopeful signs. Cyril Ramaphosa’s return to frontline politics as the Deputy President of the ANC has raised the hopes of many that he may yet return to high office. And last week Dr Ramphele – activist, academic, business woman, doctor and former partner of Steve Biko announced the formation of a new political party.
If these two are an indication that South Africans can rediscover their faith and commitment to politics, then it will be not just a triumph for the country but a victory for the art of politics. Writing this waiting to fly home, back to a country grown cynical and jaded by the petty futility of the political process, it is good to remember that politics in South Africa saved a country.