Editorial: Sting in the tale of our freedom

The M&G's front cover was swathed in the black, green and gold of the liberation movement when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president. (AFP)

The M&G's front cover was swathed in the black, green and gold of the liberation movement when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president. (AFP)

Looking back through 20 years of the Mail & Guardian is one way to celebrate 20 years of freedom and democracy in South Africa. As we face our fifth general election since liberation and as the ruling party trumpets its successes, the nation is arguing about the good and the bad of the past two decades.

In 1994, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the "Black President" predicted by Brenda Fassie, the M&G's front cover was swathed in the black, green and gold of the liberation movement and proclaimed: "Let freedom reign".

In August that year, we took seriously Mandela's upfront commitment to transparent, accountable governance, producing a "report card" on the new Cabinet's first 100 days. (Such report cards would become an annual feature of the paper, much to the chagrin of the ministeriat.)

The government of national unity had barely been in office for a year when we did another report card, sorting the "dunces" from the rest.
It's a bit sobering to see that, already in May 1995, the government was concerned about corruption in its midst and had put Kader Asmal and Cyril Ramaphosa on to developing a new code of conduct for ministers. "The gravy train stops here" said the M&G's front page. If only it had been true.

In 1996, when it was clear who would succeed Mandela to the presidency, we asked: "Is Thabo Mbeki fit to rule?" The next nine years would show whether we were right to ask that question. Mbeki's stance on HIV and Aids (dissident to denialist), his disastrous "quiet diplomacy" in Zimbabwe (outwitted by the decrepit dictator there), and his ducking and diving on the arms deal of which he had been a key driver – never mind his growing paranoia and intolerance of any view but his own – began to give the sad answers to our question.

Ironically, the ANC itself decided Mbeki was no longer fit to rule and "recalled" him in 2008. Jacob Zuma, his rival for the party's leadership, had ousted Mbeki as its chief a few months earlier. The story of Mbeki's tussle with his former close comrade and deputy is the story of South African politics from 2005, when Mbeki fired Zuma, until today. Mbeki may be out of government roles but Zuma is still fighting a rearguard action against accusations of corruption.

Beneath and through all this throbbed the arms deal, and a swift succession of early-2000s M&G headlines gives the picture: "Arms deal: The Shaik link deepens", "How Cabinet chose guns instead of butter", "How Joe Modise wangled jet deal", "Tony Yengeni's 4x4 'cover-up' ", "The deputy president's French connection", and finally, bluntly, "Zuma for sale".

That was only 2003. "Don't sell out the ANC", we pleaded. It's now more than a decade later; it seems the deal has been done. And that's not even to count the headlines about Brett Kebble, ANC Youth League enrichment, Oilgate (I and II), Zuma's rape trial, the "secrecy Bill", and the fall of national police commissioner Jackie Selebi on the basis of revelations made in this paper about his crooked relationship with various mafiosi.

In 2008, the M&G's front page bore the red of blood spilt in violence against immigrants: "Mob nation", we said. In 2009, the year after "load-shedding", we wrote: "Eskom is facing a funding crisis that is likely to persist into the next decade" – a line that could have been written yesterday. In 2010, it was "A government adrift", another headline that would suit many of today's media stories, and a front page with two key snapshots: one records a breakdown in Zuma's relationship with unionists (see Zwelinzima Vavi and the National Union of Metalworkers today); the other tells how a Cape Town man was "seized, bound and hooded by JZ's heavies … for a 'gesture' ".

It doesn't seem far from such banana-republicanism to the staged outcry over and attempted censorship of The Spear (2012), Guptagate (2013) and indeed Nkandla. The story of the president's private homestead getting a makeover, with ever-ballooning costs to the state, was broken by this paper in December 2009; little did we know how much the costs would bloat. Now, after the public protector's report, we know it will cost nearly a quarter of a billion rands. And the president is still ducking and diving. This past week, between imitating the opposition parties in funny voices, he was saying the public protector had no "proof" that he and his family had benefited "unduly". This is all too much like going, "Tee, hee, you can't catch me" and thumbing his nose at any form of accountability.

Which goes, too, for the biggest story of 2012: Marikana. There, 34 miners were killed by police in a grotesquely inept overreaction. We printed photojournalist Greg Marinovich's exposé (first run in The Daily Maverick) of how it really looked at the site – and the holes began to appear in the police's account of the massacre. From then on, and into a commission of inquiry still dragging itself painfully through all the evidence, Marikana has been on our minds; it is still there as we face this year's general elections and as we celebrate 20 years of freedom. Marikana is something we thought couldn't happen in the new, post-apartheid South Africa, the kind of thing long behind us.

This is what Njabulo Ndebele wrote in the M&G in 2009 for our democracy's 15th anniversary: "It seems as if, instead of setting out to create a new reality, we worked merely to inherit an old one." He went on, in words that would have rung out in 1994 and still resonate loudly today: "Depending on the choice we make, we either relive the past – or we create the future."

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