“How does it feel to be back?”, I was asked more times than I can remember. And my answer, heartfelt and enthusiastic, was always, “Great!”.
It was wonderful to be back in South Africa, my home from 2001 to 2006. It’s a country full of inspiring people and places, and it is close to my heart. So why did my return also leave me with a sense of unease, a feeling that the country is in danger of losing its way?
My four-year absence might disqualify me from coming to too many conclusions. But a one-month return also enabled me to notice changes that people caught up in the country’s day-to-day struggles may not appreciate.
I’m well aware that South Africa’s post-apartheid journey has been punctuated by wild mood swings, and that many of my own friends have, over the years, lurched between feelings of despair and elation over their country’s prospects. But, nonetheless, I still found myself taken aback by some of the cynicism and disappointment I heard expressed on this trip.
Surprised too, because, like so many millions of people, I had watched and admired from afar as South Africa hosted a wonderful World Cup just a few months ago. Indeed, the mere mention of the World Cup seemed to produce a warm glow in the eyes of all the South Africans I spoke to, whatever their colour, age or sex.
“It was incredible, the whole country just came together, a magical time,” nearly everyone recalled.
To some extent a World Cup hangover was inevitable, a feeling of “well, that was amazing, and now we have nothing left to look forward to”. So maybe this is just one of those mood swings, albeit on an exaggerated scale. But I also wonder if there are more substantial reasons to worry about South Africa.
Take a look at the governing party, the ANC. The squabbling, the jostling for power, and the crude use of ideology as a weapon to outmanoeuvre rivals all these are markedly worse then a few years ago. To any observer of South African politics this is a statement of the painfully obvious, but it still bears repeating, because the ANC was not always like this.
“Where are the intellectuals, the men of principle?”, I was asked by a despairing, (and prominent) supporter.
At a recent meeting in Durban, I watched as President Zuma tried to stamp his authority on his party.
The thousands of delegates seemed to welcome his calls for discipline, and his denunciations of corruption. But does Zuma really have the political support, moral authority and intellectual clout to whip his party into line? A generous answer would have to be perhaps, but only if he reveals hitherto undemonstrated qualities.
The suspicion is that South Africa, an extraordinary country with extraordinary problems, has found itself lumbered with an unremarkable leader.
In the meantime, there is a political vacuum being filled by ambitious people. Foremost amongst these, of course, is the president of the ANC’s Youth League, Julius Malema, with his cry of “nationalise the mines”.
Mr Malema’s message is crude and populist, and is based on shaky economic ground. The trade unions despise him. So why is there not more concerted opposition to him from within the senior ANC ranks? Perhaps these people fear Malema, or perhaps they hope to use the Youth League to strengthen their own positions in the next leadership battle, (just as Zuma once did). Either conclusion is depressing.
Many former supporters told me how they felt alienated from the ANC, and disgusted by the relentless corruption allegations. The proposed black empowerment deal at the steel company Arcelor Mittal, which would benefit President Zuma’s son, has left a bad taste.
In intellectual circles, the party is widely discredited. Yes, the ANC is becoming more of an African nationalist movement, and much of the criticism I heard was from disillusioned whites. But black friends and colleagues also expressed many misgivings. In fact, I heard the same kind of complaints in squatter camps on the edge of Johannesburg as I did round smart dinner tables in the northern suburbs the jobless man in the shack had reached the same conclusions as the distinguished anti-apartheid lawyer who helped negotiate the end of white minority rule: that the party is arrogant and intolerant of criticism, (hence the attempts to limit press freedom) and that too many officials are more interested in their own benefits than alleviating poverty.
I also sensed a wider loss of trust in institutions and the rule of law. A young black businessman spoke of the difficulty of setting up a new media company because it was harder and harder to know whether the money people were offering him was “clean” and what political strings came attached.
A barrister spoke of how more and more companies are choosing to resolve complex legal disputes through private arbitration, rather than in the courts, because of a lack of trust in the quality of judges. One result of this is that South Africa’s jurisprudence is failing to develop and keep up with changes in modern business.
South Africa needs a strong judiciary (just as it needs a strong media) precisely because of the ANC’s domination of the political scene unless and until there are alternative parties that have realistic hopes of taking power, the checks and balances provided by the law help keep democracy healthy.
My impressions are no more than a snapshot. They don’t do justice to the complexity of South African society, nor to the many wonderful individuals and institutions striving to make it a better place. But I still find it hard to shake off that nagging sense of unease.