/ 22 June 2019

​On hope and the death of nostalgia in South Africa

Having just elected a new president who has not yet made it clear whether or not he will be capable of addressing corruption
Having just elected a new president who has not yet made it clear whether or not he will be capable of addressing corruption, poverty and inequality, South Africans must either learn to live with uncertainty or embrace possibility. (GCIS)


On the day South Africa’s new president is sworn in, fighter pilots take to the air in a show that makes the crowds at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld stadium gasp. I listen on the radio as two journalists narrate the proceedings of the inauguration. They pepper their commentary with words like ‘best’ and ‘beautiful’ and ‘pride’. You can hear them beaming over the airwaves. They keep up a light banter, referring to the historic day in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president of a newly democratic South Africa. They talk about how inclusive the ceremony is, about the fact that, for the first time, it has been moved away from the Union Buildings to Loftus in order to allow more people to attend.

I have a sense — unsupported by evidence but persistent nonetheless — that the worst is behind us. It is not quite excitement, it is something else, something that almost feels like optimism because finally, finally, Jacob Zuma and his irreconcilable bravado are gone.

All of a sudden, one of the army parachuters who have dazzled the crowd with air acrobatics comes down too hard. He lands on a railing and the stadium emits a different kind of collective gasp. The journalists on the radio break out of the soft pitter-patter of their conversation. “Ouch!” says one of them involuntarily. It ends the reverie. The man is not hurt, but he has shattered the illusion that our paratroopers are “the best.” We are just a nation, trying our best, falling short and clinging to the stories we want to believe about ourselves.

Two days later I meet a young journalist for coffee in Rosebank — a busy, chic upmarket area of Johannesburg. We sit on a couch at Motherland Coffee and talk. He tells me that Saturday was a busy day because he covered the inauguration for his paper. He had woken up early to get to the stadium and had spent the day interviewing people and taking it all in. I ask if it had felt nostalgic.

He looks at me quizzically and laughs. “Ahh, nostalgia is for old people,” he says. He doesn’t remember the Mandela moment. There is no repository in his memory of a better time, a simpler time, a time when the future wasn’t fraught. Nostalgia literally has no place in his political lexicon. There is more. He is not simply playing innocent. He is making a larger point. He wonders aloud about the expense, wonders why President Ramaphosa didn’t simply meet the Chief Justice in an office for a quiet swearing-in ceremony and then get to work.

Put this way — shorn of nostalgia and the sentimentality that nostalgia trains us to accept — it seems a reasonable question.

When I speak or write about South Africa in international settings, I am often asked — in a roundabout way — about hope. Often the questions I am asked about hope do not actually include the word hope. Instead, they are anchored by a different word — tragedy. Outside South Africa, there is a growing sense that the South African dream is dead, that our country has declined economically and socially to such an extent that it now represents a tragedy. I am quick to point out that a tragedy is defined by its ending, and our story is still being written. While we have our problems, we continue to seek solutions.

My refusal to give in to the narrative of tragedy should not be mistaken for optimism. As American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has written: “I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth”. Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself.”

Coates is correct. To assert hopefully that we shall overcome our myriad problems is to succumb to the sort of hagiography of humanity to which he refers. At the moment, there are few objective reasons to be optimistic or hopeful about South Africa’s future, even as there are no reasons to conclude that ours is a failed state, or that our journey to democracy has ended in tragedy.

There are real questions to be raised about what it means to sit in this space between tragedy and hope. If South Africa is neither hopeful nor tragic, what posture should we take in relation to the future?

Having just elected a new president who has not yet made it clear whether or not he will be capable of addressing corruption, poverty and inequality, South Africans must either learn to live with uncertainty or embrace possibility. I am too cautious to suggest that we might begin to hope, but certainly, as the distance between 1994 and today widens, I see the merit in examining what is possible and looking for places where feats of imagination and acts of hard work might yet produce positive results. Sadly, these spaces of possibility do not come from the most recent election of the ANC, nor are they created by Ramaphosa’s track record of leadership thus far. The possibilities in South Africa continue to exist where they have always existed — on the margins rather than in enclaves: amongst those who are not seduced by the language of foolish, sickly sweet hope, amongst those who have no options but to push for change.

If we must indulge in nostalgia, let it be productive. Let us remember what was most remarkable about the early post-apartheid years, which was the manner in which the leadership of the ANC, as well as people in senior roles in government and civil society, embraced the contradictions inherent in building an equal society on foundations that were deeply unequal. The task of honouring justice in a place where injustice had reigned for so long was not just seen as important, it was understood to be contradictory by its very nature.

South Africa’s early leaders — across party lines, but especially within the ANC — were not fearful of contradictions. Rather they understood that contradictions lay at the very centre of the project of rebuilding our new society. So much effort was expended on talking through these contradictions.

Over time, of course — as the TRC ended and the report was handed over, as the ANC became more involved in the business of managing state resources — the work of nation-building became less of a priority and the task of thinking through and accepting these contradictions was outsourced. This loss of focus by the state, in terms of the narrative of justice and unity, coincided with a moment in the early 2000s when donor support to the civil society and civic sectors was in decline.

Donors either withdrew completely or shifted their support to the new government. The non-profits that managed to survive this period were generally large organisations based in Cape Town, Johannesburg or Pretoria, whose work focused on either lobbying the government or supporting the state in the delivery of large infrastructure projects, such as water and sanitation or the training of teachers, nurses and other civil servants. These activities were crucial. Still, there was a cost. The civic sector contracted as the state expanded. At a structural level, this meant the closing of avenues for people to express themselves communally. 

The reconfiguration of the sector — indeed the “NGO-isation” of civic action — meant that the legitimate institutions that could hold local councillors to account or had previously taken responsibility for planning events and articulating community dreams and desires simply disappeared.

This had devastating consequences for the national conversations about reconciliation and nation-building that had characterised the first decade of a democratic South Africa. Trust began to fray as politicians’ promises began to waver and corruption soared. Suddenly the mechanisms that had been established during apartheid to resolve social conflicts went silent or were hijacked by quasi-government-linked entities like the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco). At the national level, once Mandela and Tutu had stepped down – regardless of how flawed or partial their approach may have been – there were no longer any grand patrons of the unity agenda.

There have been fewer and fewer people operating in the public domain who have been able to take up the mantle of unity in a way that feels relevant to the contemporary moment. A notable exception was Thuli Madonsela, who served as the public protector for a decade overlapping almost precisely with the leadership of President Jacob Zuma. Madonsela used her role to champion the Constitution. Her contribution was important because it opened up possibilities at a time when many South Africans were expressing anger and disillusionment with the impunity and abuse of power that Zuma and his party had come to represent. 

Still, Madonsela was not able — nor was it her mandate — to address the structural problems of land and urban poverty and their attendant pathos.

With the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, the narrative of hope has resurfaced. This is partly due to the fact that the ouster of his predecessor was seen as a function of the popular will. As a result, Ramaphosa has been able to cast himself as a new broom who has arrived to sweep clean.

The problem is, of course, that Ramaphosa served as deputy-president for the second half of Zuma’s years in office. Before that, he was already the embodiment of the grotesque. The rapid and enormous rise in his wealth was largely due to his positioning as a lead mediator for the ANC during the negotiations for democracy, where he won the trust of the white businesspeople who controlled the economy in 1994 and continue to do so today. His role in the events that led to the 2012 Marikana mineworkers’ massacre showed him to be callously out of touch with the interests of workers, and predictably and cruelly supportive of the interests of the mining company on whose board he sat.

Ramaphosa was elected as deputy-president of the ANC within months of the massacre. Zuma was returned to office. The police involved in the killings were never properly sanctioned. Ramaphosa’s role in using his ANC networks to ratchet up the police response was waved away. These insults against the memories of the dead were all of a piece – emblematic of how even the most monstrous acts can be rewarded when they are perpetrated by those who possess power. The old South Africa seemed not so old; the new, not so new.

Since Marikana there have been more scandals involving a callous disregard for life and basic decency.

In 2014, there was a shocking discovery at the farm of Thandi Modise, then speaker of the National Council of Provinces and an executive member of the ANC. Fifty dead pigs, and other dead animals, including goats, sheep, geese and ducks were found on her Modderfontein property. There were close to ninety surviving animals, but they were on the brink of death and many were found eating the carcasses of those that had already died. Although Modise is still facing private prosecution for animal abuse, she has just been appointed as the new Speaker of the National Assembly — the third in line to take the position of president in the event of an emergency.

In 2016, 143 mentally ill patients died at psychiatric facilities in Gauteng after the province precipitously cancelled its contract with service-provider Life Esidimeni and transferred patients to unlicensed NGOs. The causes of death included starvation and neglect. The provincial MEC for health, Qedani Mahlangu, behaved atrociously. She was arrogant and evasive and refused to accept responsibility for her role in making decisions that led to the deaths. None of this affected her electability. A year later, her cadres voted her into a position on the provincial executive council. It was only as elections approached that the ANC at national level asked her to step down. After the public outcry that led to her stepping down, Ramaphosa publicly embraced her and indicated that, regardless of what she had done, she should not be treated with “total disdain”. Mahlangu still has not expressed regret for her actions.

I chose these examples deliberately to look past the scandals linked to corruption. They focus instead on the culture of impunity that has set in regarding the value of life — of poor black life in particular. There is little reason to believe that Ramaphosa — with his rhetoric of a New Dawn — will be able to introduce the kind of moral integrity the governing party so desperately needs. His history in the last two decades – alongside that of his comrades — indicates that, at best, he will be able to promote incremental improvements to the economy. But where it matters the most, he will lack the courage and authority to rein in the worst impulses of a party that rewards the arrogant, the cruel and the callous.

Ramaphosa and those who have accompanied him to power lack moral authority. However, this problem is endemic to South African politics: there are no leaders of any party who can claim moral authority. This makes the situation all the more dire and all the more unacceptable.

Perhaps this is a bleak place to end. Forgive me, but it would be a lie to suggest I am hopeful. I am not cynical either, nor am I wont to insist that we have reached a tragic dead end. Instead, I am sober and firm in my conviction that nothing is predetermined about our future. Just as there is no reason to believe things will get better, there is no cause for wholesale despair. The present is what it is.

I understand the need for hope, though, and if you are looking for some, you might be heartened by the words of my coffee companion. Mabaso is right. Old people are nostalgic. But South Africa is a young country and so this habit of looking back towards better times must be replaced by the clear-eyed actions of the young. The future belongs to those who have no memories of Mandela, and no illusions about the cravenness that national pomp and pageantry seek to hide.

If there is hope, it lies in the generation we have reared to accept that they have no need for nostalgia.

Sisonke Msimang is the author of two books. She writes about justice, politics and democracy. This article was published with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. The views expressed in this article should not be taken as a reflection of the views of the Foundation.