11 Jun 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
THE fading health of Nelson Mandela, the fraying of our constitutional settlement and the severe contraction of the economy, bathe the country in sombre light.
Last weekend I was interviewed for a documentary about Mandela’s meaning for the world. His close confidant, Mac Maharaj, had wisely cautioned the director to "remember that Madiba is human, not a saint". So advised, I reminisced that among the former president’s stellar achievements was his unerring ability to combine the advancement of principle with shrewd political calculation.
The much contested "rainbow nation", which Mandela’s presidency emblazoned on the country and the world, was on one level putting into presidential practice his historic speech from the criminal dock in 1964, to wit: "I have fought against white domination; I have fought against black domination…." This impulse was not admired in all quarters, but it certainly helped bind the wounds of a fractured nation.
But it was also shrewd in creating a sense of unity on a shaky foundation. Mandela hardly needed, and did not receive, many votes from minority communities, but he needed their buy-in to get the new South Africa on the road as a going economic concern and to settle the nerves of international investors, who played a big role in buying our bonds and equities.
But you could also joke with Mandela about the limitations of his mega-star appeal. In 1995, shortly before the municipal elections in Johannesburg, I visited the him in his Houghton home on some political business. He boasted that he had been canvassing for the African National Congress (ANC) in the area that morning. "I signed up over 120 members for the ANC in Houghton," he enthused. "Well, they will probably still vote for us in a few weeks’ time," I responded.
He laughed heartily and the subsequent result proved me, in this small predication, correct. But that time of national reconciliation and the easy banter that accompanied it has faded. This is reflected across the political and racial divides by the new generation of political leadership.
When Jacob Zuma was the provincial boss in KwaZulu-Natal he had his hands full in dousing the violent flames of the incipient civil war, which had nearly immolated the province. He was largely successful in that project and certainly there was no rancour displayed by him or colleagues of that time to Indians and whites. They were free to make their political choices, which they did by overwhelmingly not supporting his party.
But a different note was recently sounded by his recent successor there, ANC provincial chairman Senzo Mchunu. He recently issued a warning to the whites and Indians in his province: "(I) generally get the sense that minorities have generally abdicated their responsibility towards South Africa, being South African, towards the government and the ANC."
In a similar vein, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane warned about the return of "pale male government". Doubtless, both will double down on racial targeting and simultaneously proclaim fealty to the constitutional principle of nonracialism.
They bring to mind the 16th century heretics, the Antinomians, of whom Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote: "They believed that to the pure, all things are pure. If you were of the elect, the saved, you could do no wrong; you could merrily eat, drink and fornicate in the certainty of salvation." Or in our context, you can make racial threats and still proclaim nonracialism.
So the ANC is happy to ditch the nonracial consensus of two decades ago. There are few votes in it for it, and if it scares investors and job creators, well that’s politics.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has the opposite problem: it has maxed out on minority votes and is now in anxious search of a base among the majority. I have considerable sympathy for this dilemma having had to walk the path of keeping an existing constituency and securing a new one. This probably explains why it was the DA Youth, and not the ANC Youth League, who were toyi-toying outside the Afrikaans-Protestants-only Kleinfontein community the other day. But the repudiation of this move by DA Gauteng leader John Moodey proves just how divisive this can be within the party itself. Similarly, on the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Bill, the party has taken a "support with reservations" approach.
Back in the old South Africa, the United Party tried to appeal to two constituencies simultaneously, having a conservative voice for the platteland and liberal approach in urban areas, perhaps summed up by its slogan of "White rule with Justice".
An unrelenting focus on the economy and giving a substantive answer to Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus’s extraordinary cry for help the other day, rather than racial threats or equivocations, is what’s most needed now. It will also reconcile the nation today with the legacy bequeathed by Nelson Mandela.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA