Learn to love South Africa’s ugly camel


Not this again. Every single time that something even vaguely upsetting happens, someone blames Codesa (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa) for having been too weak, or strong, or left, or right, or long, or short, for the current problems. It ought to be trite to point this out, but Codesa wasn’t perfect. It was not meant to be. Negotiated settlements never are. So why are we having this debate again?

It’s getting very boring.

Usually, Codesa-bashing is left up to my comrades in the leftist formations, for having allowed the previous regime to keep all its ill-gotten gains, while only making meagre concessions to the oppressed masses.

“They should have made the whites give back all the land! They should have arrested all of them! Rah-rah-rah!”

Perhaps. But do you know why they didn’t? Ask your nearest white conservative how he feels about Codesa. Was it a humiliating capitulation? Do they feel it protected them enough? I’ll bet they’ll say no.

The widespread student protests and the march of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in Johannesburg has given voice to many on the right to vent.

On The Conversation website, Stellenbosch University lecturer Nicola de Jager thought that the intemperate rise of the EFF parallels that of the National Party in the 1940s. Apparently this is because some mythical balance established in the transition years has made way for … real politics?

Over at Business Day, Professor Gerrit Olivier of the University of Pretoria bemoaned “a system was created in which these aberrations could be legitimised by majoritarian democracy, providing a liberal veneer for racial discrimination”.

We’re to understand that, by enabling redress and transformation, Codesa had somehow become the insidious vehicle for “racism, minority exclusion, corruption and bad governance”.

This reminds me of that saying by not-very-thoughtful people: a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The “truth” of this statement collapses once you spend more than half a second thinking about it.

Camels are great. They’re better than horses in many respects. You’d love a camel if you lived in the extreme conditions of the desert.

If apartheid is our desert, then Codesa is our camel. Our committee-designed compromise was meant to take us somewhere better. Not everyone got what they wanted. There’s no insight in pointing that out. There is certainly none in pretending that South Africa’s growing pains are owed to that initial compromise.

Students are not protesting (workers are not striking, and EFF is not marching) because of anything that Codesa didn’t do. But we all live in a country where the power to shape our destiny is in our own hands because of Codesa.

Yes, it was an ugly camel. But love it, dear friends. Love our ugly, stinking camel.

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer based in Cape Town

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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