I had not intended to write anything on the death of Nelson Mandela. Partly because I am exhausted, but mainly because I wish to demonstrate my right not to mark his passing in any way — notwithstanding any affection I might bear the man. I feel that it is a right that needs to be demonstrated quite vehemently in the South Africa of today, though there is no lack of affection, even if it is the affection for the very human shortcomings of a human being with human shortcomings aplenty.
I remember that the Mandela administration was a pleasant surprise to those of us who were expecting something more authoritarian-collectivist. As an individualist at heart I had had before then only peripheral contact with apartheid-era political dissent, enough to share the disgust with the Nationalist state but also enough to be deeply concerned about a Stalinist strand that ran through the then underground alternative — an attitude incapable of conceptual distinction between individualism and capitalist colonialism. Of course we had been fed ghost-stories about the Red Peril which had largely succeeded the Black Peril as universal bugbear, so that we should submit to totalitarianism lest we end up under the yoke of totalitarianism. That never made any sense to me: The absurdity of apartheid was to me that the Communists could take over and nobody would be able to tell the difference. But just as the Nats failed to convince me that they were any better than the ANC; so the ANC failed to convince me that they were any better than the Nats.
There is much I am glad to have escaped, but the settlement of ’94 left much to be desired. The failure to do anything about the South African Reserve Bank as a corporation answerable only to its shareholders allowed policy decisions to be dictated by expectations of “investor sentiment,” and the concomitant myth of “foreign investment” as the sine qua non of national prosperity. Hence the gradual dilution of the (basically Keynesian) Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) until it was replaced by the trickledown-heavy neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan (GEAR) under Thabo Mbeki. The result is that South Africa remains a deeply unequal society, and one still tragically overshadowed by race. The shared spaces have not been created: Khayelitsha is still not somewhere to go for a Saturday afternoon coffee for anyone of any race.
It is not as it should be. But we are rid of something that had plagued South Africa for half a century, though I fear that the respite may be brief. The character of the Mandela years was one of a wide-reaching opening-up, a great inrush of fresh air. Military conscription, the death penalty, and official censorship were abolished. Efforts were made to demilitarize the police, with a civilized rank structure with inspectors and superintendents instead of the banana-republic colonels and generals that had gone before. Unorthodox lifestyles were actively protected, and unorthodox thinking actively encouraged. Even things like liquor laws and trading hours were loosened up: no longer would pharmacies need elaborate internal partitions because they were allowed to sell aspirin on Sundays but not shampoo. And this brought a new culture: No longer would the detail mundanities of life be considered the province of the state.
This was still not enough to awaken a true civil-liberties sensibility in the South African population. For years a white constituency was happy to condone oppression as long as it was aimed at the Other, and so issues like due process were seen as favouring the Other over itself. Now the Other would be recast for a multi-racial audience as the Criminal Peril. Random road-blocks continued without comment, and house-to-house searches remained part of the normal police routine following major violent crimes. The culture that produced mass demonstrations against apartheid’s pass system meekly accepted its doors being kicked in if it was done in pursuit of a murderer, as meekly as whites had previously accepted their doors being kicked in if it was done in pursuit of a Communist.
In subsequent years the growth of immediate everyday liberty that had blossomed during Mandela’s presidency began to wither. The ANC’s place-renaming programme went far beyond correcting the Nats’ previous place-renaming programme (the Nats had the gall to call the airport at George “P. W. Botha Airport” not only while Botha was still alive but while he was actually president) and in so doing ended up perpetuating the disease, instead of recognizing popular descriptive names already in use. The same attitude is what is bugging me now: Every TV station including the non-government one is broadcasting all-day Mandelathons, and have shifted every surviving regular programme to a slot other than its usual one. It is as if every effort is made to prevent me from not noticing, or not caring. I don’t like it.
In February 2010 Chumani Maxwele was arrested for giving Jacob Zuma’s motorcade the finger. Zuma had taken to flaunting his police-escorted motorcade, deliberately forcing a path to be cleared through the heaviest rush-hour traffic every morning and every afternoon, apparently in an attempt to play to that element which admires the African Big Man. His patriarchal polygamy is an affront to every ordinary man who is consequently a wife short, and to every ordinary woman who has loved an ordinary man. Zuma has actively cultivated a constituency to whom politics is a sport and voters are fans, who vote for the ANC because it is the election-winning machine and the best party ever, just a pity about their policies. The booing that met him at today’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela makes me think that Zuma has severely underestimated the South African population.
Still, Chumani Maxwele was able to sue the police successfully, and the blue-light motorcades were subsequently abolished. Still, Zuma had to drop his defamation suit against cartoonist Zapiro over his “Rape of Lady Justice” cartoon. Still, interracial marriages are so common in my neighbourhood as to be completely unremarkable. Still, having a drink on the sidewalk with the Congolese and Moçambicans in Long Street does not make one a danger to the state.
There is as much cause for dissent as there had been before Mandela, and at last there are new movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo, whose issues are economic rather than racial and whose culture is not that of Marx and Lenin but that of Occupy and Anonymous. This gives me enormous hope.
In the meantime I shall go back to not marking the passing of Nelson Mandela, however fond I might have been of him.