National

Fifteen things 2014 can learn from 2013

Gus Silber

It was a year filled with Nkandla, e-tolls, the Guptas and the death of a great man. What's next, asks Gus Silber.

The government launched the widely unpopular e-tolls around the economic hub of Johannesburg in December. (Reuters)

If you paid attention during your history class, you will know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to retweet it.

What lessons, what "learnings", what teachable moments has the year just gone by left in store for the year yet to come? Here, in no particular order, are some.

Now go forth and make history happen.

Wear your heart on your sleeve, but keep your thoughts on your cuff.
When President Jacob Zuma drifts from his script, like a car veering into the taxi lane on the hard shoulder, all you can do is steel yourself and wait for the crunch.

The mangle of twisted meaning, the web of shattered context will have to be panel-beaten and put back together again by the president's long-suffering surgeon of spin, Mac Maharaj.

In one off-the-cuff remark, delivered during a boast on the transport infrastructure of Gauteng, Zuma managed to belittle Malawi as the Bloemfontein of sub-Saharan nations and portray Africa to the north as a continent of non-thinkers.

Please, sir, stick to the script. Or, next time, there'll be tanks rolling under the gantries.

Care for people first, but have a heart that is big enough to accommodate a dog stuck at the bottom of a big hole.
Any nation that can dispatch a tactical search and rescue unit to retrieve a dehydrated hound from a ledge at the bottom of an abandoned mining pit can't, surely, be all bad.

The sight of burly Warrant Officer John Seeley clutching the crossbreed, now known as Kimberleigh, was evidence of our shared humanity and our dogged determination to do the right thing under trying circumstances.

This being South Africa, of course, it wasn't long before a local pastor stepped forward to claim that the mutt was rightfully his, and he was prepared to go to the courts to prove it. Easily solved. Let him have the pit bull half and let the brave policeman have the boerboel half.

The best way to deal with booing is to drown it out with singing.
No one who chooses politics or stand-up comedy as a career can expect to be showered only with bouquets during a public performance.

Boos go with the territory, and in a democracy as vibrant as ours they will be dispensed with the same frequency as blasts from a vuvuzela. How to cope with the barrage? Don't ignore it. Don't blame and shame or seek retribution. Sing.

That's what Helen Zille did when the boo-vuzela chorus started during the Nelson Mandela memorial in Cape Town, and it brought her cheers and the chance of a singalong. Sing, even if you don't know all the words. And then stop singing and listen to what the booers have to say.

Never settle for being mediocre when, with just a little more effort, you can be completely atrocious.
The Gupta clan are the King Midas of South African media: everything they touch turns to comedy gold. As if that sneaky landing at Waterkloof wasn't enough, they sought to capitalise on their capability for making news by launching a 24-hour television channel that would never stop making news – for all the wrong reasons.

Awkwardly out of their depth, ANN7's presenters stared blankly at the autocue, pronounced the "x" in "grand prix" and – rightfully, perhaps – proclaimed Johannesburg as the Mother City of South Africa.

But despite all the blapses and bloopers – all right, because of them – millions tuned in. At the same time, the SABC's own fledgling 24-hour news channel, whatever it's called, lay forlorn and forgotten on the DStv spectrum.

Thanks, ANN7, for setting a new benchmark in broadcasting and for going on to prove that you could only get better.

Live and let others live, in small worlds apart from our own.
The future is another country; the past is a little enclave outside Pretoria called Kleinfontein.

Here, on a battleground of the Second Boer War with a bust of Hendrik Verwoerd at its heart, dwells a community of Afrikaners who choose to cluster on grounds of language, religion and culture.

If that sounds like a familiar distinction, the difference, in a free South Africa, is that its exclusiveness is protected by article 185 of the Constitution, in terms of which the Gauteng legislature declared Kleinfontein to be a "cultural community".

It is a sign of our maturity as a democracy that few people outside that community are rattling the security gates, demanding to be let in. So what is the big difference, then, between freedom of association and apartheid? One word: freedom.


A group of Afrikaners has chosen to create their own enclave in Kleinfontein near Pretoria. (Gallo)

It's an ill wind of change that blows nobody any good.
Cape Town, as the Capetonians like to remind us, is the fairest Cape in all the world. Some parts are fairer than others, of course, which is why, when the winds of change blow in from the Flats, you need a strong constitution to cope.

Toilets have long been a weapon of war – even Napoleon had his Waterloo. This year the Western Cape will be in the front line of the battle once again, as the right to basic plumbing becomes an outlet for political expression ahead of the elections.

The bottom line in a constitutional democracy is that you can speak it, as long as you don't throw it. Still, if you're planning a visit to Cape Town in the new year, watch your step.

If you really must come to Africa to shoot a lion, don't shoot your mouth off about it.
It is a wonder of the modern world that people who have never met are able to share the most intimate details of their lives on social media. It is an even bigger wonder that people would want to.

We complain about privacy, about satellites spying on us as we walk down the street or surf the web late at night. And yet we have no compunction about tweeting pictures of every random lion we chance upon and subsequently shoot on a holiday far from home.

There is a good case to be made for letting dollar-burdened tourists visit our shores and fulfil their quota of legally hunted, ethically managed wildlife.

But outside the immediate pride, we really don't need to see the trophy pictures, thank you, Melissa Bachman. That was a fine-looking Panthera leo, but oversharing is overkill.

Hover like a hummingbird before you get your wings into a flap.
Leaping to conclusions is an Olympic-class sport in South Africa. We are quick to fall victim to our prejudices, to pronk with the herd, when a moment's reflection might persuade us that the wind is blowing in the opposite direction.

When Desmond Tutu Facebooked his hurt over his absence from Nelson Mandela's funeral guest list, an unholy row ensued. Some suggested this was a snub for his criticism of the ruling party, in which case, what was Helen Zille doing in the marquee, aside from tweeting pictures?

We look for malice where there is simple human frailty, conspiracy where there is confusion over protocol. We take the side of the angels, because experience warns us against believing Mac Maharaj.

This is the hummingbird syndrome, named for the case of the designer who claimed Woolworths stole her image of a hummingbird and stuck it on a cushion.

In truth, all hummingbirds look alike and in the end, after all the fuss, the Arch swallowed his pride and flew to Mthatha to say goodbye to Tata. Let us pause to filter and hear both sides, even if it isn't as instantly gratifying.


Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu arrives at former president Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Qunu on December 15. Tutu says he was initially not invited to the ceremony. (AFP)

You've got to fight for your right to be a party.
Say what you like about Julius Malema and it probably won't take you very long. Say what you don't like and we're going to be here all day. But you have to concede one thing: the man has a head for branding.

His Economic Freedom Fighters beret, which he wears in the puffed-up manner of a Mugg & Bean muffin, is the most recognisably red thing in the country, next to the cans of Coke with everyone else's name on them.

By contrast, what springs to mind when you think of Agang, aside from the leader of Agang? And what enters your head when you think of Kenny Kunene's party, aside from all the parties he's played host to?

It will take more than a tipping a hat at Che Guevara to drive a revolutionary movement to power, but at least Malema won't go unnoticed in Parliament or in court, whichever comes first.

Let the president keep his house in order.
It's ridiculous. We can't go on like this: it's tearing the country apart. A president, whatever you think of him, needs a place to call home, to hang up his hat when all the fighting is said and done. So let it be said and done.

Let Jacob Zuma retire to his home in the country, and let us keep the country. We'll laugh off the loan and give somebody else the key to the Union Buildings.

Thuli Madonsela will be annoyed, of course, but there will be other fishy business to fry. If we don't hear another word or see another picture of Nkandla in 2014, it'll be a small price to pay.


Upgrades at President Jacob Zuma's homestead in Nkandla cost millions in state funds. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

There's no such thing as a freeway.
"Let them e-tolls!" decreed our leader, in the biggest override of public opinion since Marie Antoinette advised her subjects to follow a high-sugar diet.

Despite massive opposition from civil society, political parties, organised labour and the church, e-tolls were signed into law with a flourish, forcing millions of Gauteng motorists to become even bigger outlaws than they already are.

But the gantries are working and, one way or another, we're going to have to get used to them. So stick to the back roads, or do the right thing and get yourself tagged. On Facebook, we mean.

Every sign is fake until proven otherwise.
How thin is the line between tragedy and laughter in South Africa. Alan Paton only got it half right. One moment the world is crying with us; the next moment they're laughing at us; the next moment they're screaming at us because a man who sees angels was standing next to their president.

But these are teachable moments, and not only because the hearing among us now understand that the eloquence of sign language lies as much in the face as in the hands.

We learnt from the fake interpreter that signs and symbols can be misleading, that prophets ("the night of the long knives") and polls ("Zuma must go") sometimes get it hopelessly wrong.

Make up your own mind; believe the evidence of your eyes. And next time you see a politician on television, switch off the sound. They're much easier to read that way.

Life is a journey, and we're in all in it together.
Nelson Mandela took a Long Walk to Freedom. Thabo Mbeki took a Short Walk in Traffic. But only Jacob Zuma, of all our modern presidents, has managed to take everyone in the country for a ride. Hop in and buckle up – we've still got a long way to go.

Live your life in a way that is worth singing and dancing about when you're gone.
Tributes paid from a podium can move a mountain. Tributes given freely in the streets, through song and dance, can move a nation.

Helicopters and fighter jets touch the sky; on the ground, cannons boom. As a hero falls, so the statues rise. But if you seek his monument, South Africans, look within you.

Sometimes history repeats itself as a blessing, not as a curse.
If there is anything we have learned in these first 20 years of our democracy, it's that we have been able to survive it without descending into full-scale civil war.

We argue, we fight, we call each other names, but miraculously, we somehow get along and give each other space – at least when we aren't behind the wheels of our cars.

We live our lives with an intensity of emotion that swings between despair and elation, but when the occasion calls for a long, winding queue, we line up with good grace and a languid sense of neighbourliness.

All but the most naive among us now accept that the rainbow nation was just a trick of the light, but still we find meaning in the symbols. The flag, the helicopters, the ballot papers, the Boeing over Ellis Park.

And the mash-up, the give-and-take of the national anthem, with that pause for breath and thought before Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika shifts into Die Stem, the ultimate silent metaphor of the gulf that lies between us or the bridge that brings us together.

Happy 20th anniversary, and Nkosi Sikelela us all.

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