Be cool, like Miles Davis

It has been a contradictory year, pulling us between the heights of optimism and the depths of despair.

At home, 2004 started as a year of celebration. Ten years of freedom was a beacon that cast a glittering light on the achievement of a normal society.

The world beyond proved a darker place. United States President George W Bush, re-elected in November, hastily declared this “liberty’s century”, casting himself in the role of the great liberator.

For the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, it is very far from a time of new hope, prosperity and freedom. Iraqis go to the polls at the end of January, but there is little sign that a government installed by foreign invaders has won grassroots support.

Afghanistan offers an even clearer case of the folly of “democracy” imposed from without — Hamid Karzai is Prime Minister of little more than the capital, Kabul. The poppy fields are blooming again; the women are back in burqa; poverty is widespread. Is this liberty?

In Israel/Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to play a cynical game, with freedom from occupation and just statehood still over the horizon for the Palestinian people. Perhaps this year’s enduring image from the Middle East is that of a Palestinian man forced, at gunpoint, to play his violin before checkpoint guards.

But we should not allow global gloom to eclipse the positive signs at home. An economic boom is nascent, with the first chinks of light beginning to show on the jobs front. Employment space is being opened up in manufacturing and services, suggesting that fewer matriculants face the bleak prospect of joblessness. Job growth is nowhere near big enough to make a sizeable dent in the unemployment rate of 40%.

But it does inspire hope that the tide could turn and that South Africa is not heading down the same path as India, where joblessness is institutionalised for all but the new middle classes.

In strengthening our democracy, many challenges still lie ahead. It is clear that the African National Congress, which won about 70% of the vote at the last election, still perceives itself to be a party under siege.

Often, dissenting positions on policy are stigmatised as coming from “forces intent on destabilising the government”. Party documents and leaders’ speeches are still replete with talk of plots, forces, agents. Let us be frank — such talk is paranoid poppycock.

So is the presidential propensity to take on cassocked priests, T-shirted trade-unionists and suited executives who hold other views. Democracies are about the clash of opposing perspectives, which must prove themselves in the marketplace of ideas.

We hope the new year brings the ANC the ability to wear power more comfortably; to exercise it with authority and innovation, not with fear and opprobrium.

The keynote is struck in the 2004 year-end edition of the Mail & Guardian by Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya. Sowetans, he writes, “inherited the responsibility of being the coolest thing since Miles Davis”. That is our mission for next year: to be cool and happening. We also hope our — and the world’s — politicians exercise power with style, judgement and cool heads in 2005.

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