Today is Earth Day, and by all rights, I probably should be commenting on that. However, it would seem that a number of big ticket items are happening all at once: in addition to Earth Day, it’s Budget Day in the United Kingdom. We here in Britain will discover, at long last, how truly broke we are. But that’s a target rich environment for another day.
Earth Day itself has been worked over a number of times; in my opinion, every day should be “earth day”, rather than having its precepts consigned to one date in particular. I am concerned that some people are going to switch off their television and their lights for a few hours, eat an organic yoghurt and go back to normal tomorrow, thinking that they’ve done something substantial to save the planet. However, I’ve made my disdain for simple, unsustainable solutions quite clear.
South Africa’s election, in contrast, has received less attention. This is probably because the outcome is already known: it is highly likely that the African National Congress will win yet another term in office. It is also just as probable that the next President of South Africa will be Jacob Zuma, the ANC leader. This appears to be a matter of resigned acceptance.
I have personal links to South Africa: a number of my friends are from there and live there. I was once married to a South African. I have visited the country and loved it to the depths of my soul. I support the Springboks and drink rooibos tea like it’s going out of style. I’m not entirely sure why I have this mad passion: perhaps I was a South African in a previous life, or it might have been witnessing Pretoria’s jacaranda trees in full bloom, but there is something special about the country that inspires me.
It helped that my love affair began shortly after South Africa became politically inspiring too: I first visited soon after it became clear Nelson Mandela was going to become the next President. He remains the epitome of leadership: he is committed to progress over retribution, solutions rather than blame, unity rather than fragmentation. As a “Founding Father”, the reborn South Africa could not do better.
However, I remember at the time that President Mandela took office, one of my political science professors said, “Nelson is a lovely man, but he can’t go on forever. Who comes after him?”
Who indeed? After all, the African National Congress that stood behind him was a fragmented party in every respect and it still is. Its membership ranges in ideology from hardline Communists to Thatcherite capitalists. It incorporates both Zulu and Xhosa interests. After the National Party, the Afrikaner organisation that underpinned the apartheid system, merged with the ANC in 2005, I’m sure I was not alone in asking: “Who are you now, precisely?” That said, the reply probably would have been just as confused as the party itself.
Worse, the leadership that followed President Mandela has been, to be blunt, terrible. President Mbeki has presided over growing inequality, and is guilty of inexcusable dithering over the issue of fighting AIDS and the horrors being perpetrated by Mugabe in Zimbabwe. It was an absolute relief to see him depart: but it says much that his exit has only brought limited succour.
Finally, there is a case to be made about one party serving too long in office. The ANC’s rule over South Africa has been unbroken since 1994. Fifteen years is long enough for complacency and corruption to have set in; according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perceptions Index, in 2008, South Africa was in 54th place. In 2007, South Africa was in 43rd place. A steep decline of this nature augurs poorly for the future if the present government is not provided with a suitably strong opposition to challenge it.
South Africa, sadly, only has a small Green Party to act as the voice of the environmental movement. This is understandable in a nation that has been outside of the political mainstream for so long. Given this situation, in my opinion, the best option is the Democratic Alliance.
For those who are unfamiliar with this organisation, the Democratic Alliance is a liberal political party which can trace its roots back to the South African Progressive Party. Overall, it can be summarised in a single word: prickly. It acquired this quality through its leading light and inspiration, Helen Suzman.
Helen Suzman is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela, but her role was nearly as heroic. She was the sole liberal voice in South Africa’s parliament for much of the apartheid period. She consistently challenged racism; she had the audacity to refer to the government as “narrow-minded, prejudiced bullies”, and once called the head of the Bureau of State Security, “South Africa’s very own Heinrich Himmler”. She also told John Vorster, the Justice Minister, that he should visit his constituency “heavily disguised as a human being”. Verbal prodding of this kind once prompted a government minister to say she was embarrassing the nation. Quite rightly, she shot back, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.” On top of all this, she extensively visited Mandela in prison and championed his release.
Overall, she was principled, indefatigable, and if I may say it, apparently quite curmudgeonly. As soon as I heard of her existence and learned about what she had done, I liked her very much. The Democratic Alliance is picking up where she has left off by challenging corruption and demanding an open, non-racial society. On the surface, these demands are an invitation to the world-weary practitioners of realpolitik to rub their foreheads, sigh, and say that idea of a colour-blind, fully tolerant, liberal South Africa is a pipe dream. As I’m sure Ms. Suzman would have retorted if she was still with us, “Yes, so was demanding an end to apartheid.” A slogan from the Spanish Civil War seems apropos, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
It is unlikely that the Democratic Alliance will win the election today; however it is possible that they could win control of the Western Cape’s provincial government. This would be a useful check on the power of the ANC; by losing the wealthiest province to the opposition, the federal structure of South Africa would then become something other than a transmission belt of orders from the centre. Rather, President Zuma would then be subject to scrutiny, questions, and challenge. In order words, he’d have the thorns of principle constantly scratching at him.
A successful election outcome for the DA would achieve one other great good: anecdotal evidence from my circle of acquaintances has made it clear that there is growing comfort among white South Africans to vote for a Zulu or Xhosa President. Most, if not all of them, backed President Mandela wholeheartedly. If South Africa is going to truly rise up from its past, the same level of comfort should exist the other way around: the present leader of the DA, Helen Zille, is white. However, her record is without reproach; for example, she was the journalist who exposed the truth behind the murder of Steve Biko. She was also voted World Mayor of the Year for 2008, based on her outstanding record in Cape Town. Rather than judging her on her skin colour or even gender, it should be her experience, principles and policies that count. If this proves to be the case, then South African politics will emerge tomorrow a little bit more diverse, a little bit cleaner, and hopefully a lot more prickly.