TO foreigners we must sometimes appear to be a strange nation. Warm and hospitable one day, we are capable of unspeakable violence against each other the next.
We were able to host the World Cup, our banking system is the match of any developed country, and yet, a five-star tour bus – travelling from a five-star hotel – can as easily disappear into a pothole outside a squatter camp on the way to the airport.
These crazy contrasts are what I think it means to be South African. We’re a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and medium-size nation that sometimes doesn’t know itself.
We have 11 official languages, but double that number is spoken on a daily basis by about 20 nationalities now resident in our country. Thirty or so tongues in a population of 45 million indicate diversity – a ratio of one language for every 1.5 million people.
Of course, we know that more than 1.5 million speak Zulu, for example, but the crude maths does make a point.
Indeed, if anything, the idea of a “rainbow nation” – an axiom coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu – has in 2011 become a confused smudge of rich-poor and racial divides.
This was brought home strongly to me after the IEC announced the results of our recent municipal elections. The DA had made significant inroads in urban areas, winning a clear majority in the Cape Town metro.
The ANC, a big church, found itself under pressure for lack of service delivery in the poorer Black areas, and for neglect of its Indian and Coloured wards in others. In spite of this, the party still managed to win a 62% national majority.
Perhaps one could argue that the ANC was “lucky”. Cope, the first ANC breakaway party, had proven to be more a coalition of clashing egos than a focused opposition challenging the status-quo, and the fragmentation of ANC branches around the country.
How many ex-Cope voters went back to the fold of the ANC (or the DA) after the party’s public shenanigans, is an open question. The more likely scenario is that the ANC’s ever-loyal voters were hopeful, once again, for effective local government.
But one thing is very clear from the elections: serious self-introspection is something that the ruling party needs to countenance, especially if it wants to halt a perception that it is fast becoming an identity party in which minorities perceive themselves to be in the political wilderness.
What I’m talking about here is the ANC’s inability to reign in those who shoot it in the foot by indulging in racial identity politics on the local and national stage.
Even if GCIS head, Jimmy Manyi, said coloureds should “leave” the Western Cape for work in jest, or even if his statement was taken retro-actively out of context by the DA, he should surely have known better than to venture into such sensitive territory on a public platform.
The jibes from certain party representatives, following Minister Trevor Manuel’s critical response to Manyi in the media, sent a negative message to those affected by Manyi’s sentiments that employment equity – a burning issue in the Western Cape – was over-subscribed by coloureds.
Leaders such as Julius Malema also need to realise that calling white opposition leaders “cockroaches” is as obscene as the dreaded “k” word.
He needs to know that belittling other population groups (and no, I’m not referring to “Kill the Boer”) was never the way of Nelson Mandela or Walter Sisulu, who were both once members of the ANC Youth League.
He needs to know that reducing political discourse to its its lowest common denominator – as he often does – is not debate, but semantic thuggery.
But in South Africa today, a growing lack of comprehension of what really constitutes a democratic majority is, by far, the most urgent political question that young people like Malema need to fully understand.
It was, I believe, the biggest deciding factor in the destiny of the 2011 municipal elections; elections where national issues came on to the table. The communities who felt marginalised by Malema and Manyi either withheld their votes, or supported another party.
That is why wards such as Mayfair in Johannesburg and Rylands in Cape Town went from being ANC strongholds to DA ones.
Those of us who can recall the United Democratic Front will remember that during the anti-apartheid struggle, democracy was never defined by group identities. In the spirit of non-racism and non-sexism, every person was equal and every belief was equal.
Political identity was not determined by your face, but by your principles. Democracy was understood as a principled collective demanding representative governance. Policy and perspective was debated as principle, not identity, which allowed for the equal participation of all players.
Therefore, what the ANC needs to understand is that increasingly – due to the irresponsible utterances of Malema and his ilk – Indian, Coloured and White voters are seeing the ANC as an exclusive “Black” majority party, a contradiction of the truly democratic values it originally stood for.