Editorial: Discord at the Hani graveside

Standing at the graveside of Chris Hani and listening to the hectoring of his would-be heirs, there is an echo in the air from two of his antecedents in revolution: "Leave the dead to ­bury their own dead, and follow me," says Jesus in the Gospel of ­Matthew.

Karl Marx, writing amid the turmoil that followed the European spring of 1848, picked up the theme: "The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content."

And then there is the gospel of Trevor Manuel: "Nineteen years into democracy, our government has run out of excuses. We cannot continue to blame apartheid for our failings as a state. We cannot plead ignorance or inexperience," Manuel told an audience of ­bureaucrats last week.

Quoting Marx is not the planning minister's style, but he might have added: "The social revolution … cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past."

What he did say was that we cannot defer accountability as we genuflect before spectres, to the ghost of PW Botha, "looking over our shoulder".

"Manuel was emphatically not saying that the apartheid legacy is ­irrelevant. Precisely the opposite, in fact.

"Without a strong and effective government, we will not be able to reverse the effects of apartheid on the opportunities available to all South Africans, but in particular to the historically disadvantaged," he said. "Markets on their own will not reverse the centuries of subjugation and oppression. The role of the state is to intervene decisively to change the opportunities available."

Uncontroversial articulation
These were carefully chosen words, setting a crucial but not all-encompassing role for the state in providing health and education, regulating ­markets and redressing the imbalances of a system tilted against the poor.

That is a pretty uncontroversial articulation of the role of governments in a post-crisis world that has found no alternative to markets, but that no longer celebrates the withering away of the state either.

In South Africa, prepared to do battle with the persistence of injustice, this is common sense – all the more so where the iniquities created by apartheid are entrenched by failures of democratic accountability.

"I repeat," said Manuel, "you are not accountable to the ruling party, ­certainly not directly and certainly not as civil servants … This new approach may come as a surprise to you. It may also come as a surprise to your political principals.

"However, without a professional civil service rewarded for their ­competence and commitment to the Constitution, we do not stand any chance of transforming South Africa."

Set against this approach – call it the national development state – is the superstition of the national democratic revolution, which borrows its dignity from the funeral shrouds of the dead, chants imprecations against vanished monsters and treats the urgent demands of the living as "anti-majoritarian".

President Jacob Zuma was firmly in that mode at the Hani memorial: "To suggest that we cannot blame the past for what we are doing now or what is happening in the country … I think it is a mistake, to say the least," he said. South Africans, he went on, should use Hani's name "appropriately".

'Government of dogs'
Presumably that means to use it other than how Zwelinzima Vavi did. Vavi reminded all of us – and Blade Nzimande in particular – that Hani had said he would reject a government job and had left the ANC's powerful national working committee when he was chosen as general secretary of the South African Communist Party.

He would have changed that stance had he lived, Zuma insisted on Wednesday. Nzimande hit back too: "This government is not the enemy. It's our own government; it is not the government of dogs."

The truth is that we do not know what Hani would have done, or become, had he lived.

He should not, however, be made into a votary idol for those who believe that the ruling party must simply be left alone to "run the country". Clearly he understood the structural importance of mechanisms of accountability ­distinct from those within the ruling party.

What Manuel and Vavi share, despite their deep differences over policy, is a similar understanding of the transformative – even revolutionary – import of basic constitutional principles.

Heroic revenants
Nzimande would prefer that we forget all this and leave the rites to him.

Nevertheless, try as he and Zuma might to install themselves as high priests of the past, to summon up an army of heroic revenants that will drive out the dissenting rabble, the demands of the future will persist.

Manuel and Vavi see apartheid's legacy – and the manifold new injustices that are arising – as a task. Their critics see it as an excuse and a tale to frighten children.

But we are not children anymore.

"Humility towards the poor is the greatest attribute of a civil servant," said Manuel, firmly in gospel territory. Amen.

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