I was lucky enough to be at the FNB stadium in Soweto on 10 December 2013 when 81 sitting heads of state came from around the world to mourn Nelson Mandela. The tens of thousands of South Africans who gathered that day put on an unexpected performance for these visiting dignitaries, booing their own president, Jacob Zuma, when he entered the arena. Sitting in the stands, witnessing a president's humiliation, I was struck, above all, by an overwhelming sense of history. I had come to the same stadium (or, to be entirely accurate, the pre-World Cup version of it) in 1989 to listen to Walter Sisulu and his colleagues upon their release from Robben Island. They were more legends than flesh-and-blood people, these grey-haired old men whom the world had last seen in 1964; the crowds stared at them in awe. And I was there when Mandela came to speak four days after his release in February 1990; 150,000 of us crammed into a space designed for half that number, everyone courteous and peaceful under the spell of the great man's spirit. What an experience it was sitting in that same stadium watching an ANC president being reviled instead of revered. It is tempting to understand the contrast as a measure of what had changed over nearly two decades of democracy. Beyond the stadium walls was the province of Gauteng, the heart of South Africa's economy and thus, too, of its organized working class, which was in the process of fracturing over whether to keep supporting the ANC. And, across the border from Gauteng, about 120 km from the FNB stadium, lay Marikana, where 34 striking workers were gunned down in August 2012 under the auspices of an ANC government. The social consensus through which the ANC had governed for almost 20 years, so impressively wide and deep, was breaking up, the question of what might replace it the most important of our times. Scholars try to read the near future by understanding what has happened in the recent past. The pages that follow, a selection of some of the best scholarship on South Africa that has appeared in African Affairs over the years, stand together as a gauge of what has occurred under democracy and a set of indications about its future. This is not to suggest that all the articles here tell the same story! How to understand the last twenty years is the subject of much argument, as is the question of what might happen next. The articles in this issue tell at least two rival tales of what the booing of democratic South Africa's president at the memorial for its founder might mean. One take is that the booing was a sign of dissoluteness and decay, an erosion of the integrity of public life. Beyond the end of the consensus through which the ANC has governed, there is no new compact, just a succession of scrappy battles for power. This sort of future is discernable in the two articles by Tom Lodge in this issue; a future in which the dominant logic of politics is neo-patrimonial and public power becomes a source of patronage to deliver to one's clients. It is also the sort of future discernable in Loren Landau's piece, in which the business of constituting a cohesive South African public becomes more and more difficult, and the flashes of unity that are acquired come through meting out violence on “outsiders”. It is also the sort of future discernable in my own contribution to this issue, in which the work of public agencies like the police is more and more animated by factional battles and less and less by the provision of public services. But there is a very different take on what happened to Jacob Zuma at the FNB Stadium. He earned the crowd's displeasure, after all, because of an alleged act of corruption. His once modest home in the rural hamlet of Nkandla was being refurbished at great public expense on the tenuous grounds that he needed better security. The procedures through which the decisions to spend this public money were made were shrouded in secrecy. Several cabinet ministers seemed to be whitewashing the matter on Zuma's behalf. Perhaps the crowd was reminding Zuma that he was not the owner of a fiefdom but the president of a constitutional democracy. Perhaps they were telling him that his powers were borrowed and could only be exercised according to publicly administered rules. This is the South Africa that comes into view in the articles on the AIDS controversy by Nicoli Nattrass and Anthony Butler, respectively. Both show public life in South Africa to be serious, combative, highly discursive and deeply plural. They show a country in which an array of assertive movements uses the courts, the streets, and the ruling party itself to contest public policy. A similar South Africa is evident in Alex Beresford's piece in this issue; he shows rank-and-file trade union members reflecting soberly upon their support for the ANC, suggesting that a culture of deliberation and constant reassessment has deep roots in South African life. Together, then, the articles that follow reflect how mercurial and complicated South African democracy has become over the last 20 years, and also give some sense of what might become of it yet. And in the pieces by Desmond Tutu, Frederick Johnstone and Chris Youé we have eloquent examples of the fierce and dramatic battles that preceded the birth of democracy in South Africa, reminding us of how much of the past is still with us. © The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
African Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 29, 2014
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