The ‘new South Africa’ is dead. Here’s to a new ‘new SA’
We need a new South Africa more than ever, and I don’t mean the Rainbow Nation myth
If you’re a calm constitutionalist, the election result was a consolidation of the moderate middle that consists of 77% of SA’s voters. If you’re anxious or angry, May 8 was an endorsement of ethnic nationalists and their various blood feuds and soil fetishes. And if you’re like me, you’re probably not sure quite what to feel.
This sense of dangling is inevitable, given the confusing psychology of this moment. Having just voted in a free and fair election in which 48 parties were represented, and having sent 14 of those parties to parliament, we have now banged up against the reality that our future is in the well-greased palms of perhaps half a dozen hands. All the hundreds of thousands of words written and spoken about Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema have all been blown away like dandelion seeds, and replaced by just four: will Cyril Ramaphosa govern?
It is a very disorienting feeling, this; to spend weeks marinating in democratic processes and then, suddenly, to find oneself praying, entirely helplessly, that a tiny ruling cabal will be benevolent.
Some have responded to this feeling by denouncing democracy. A few have told me they didn’t vote as a way of forcing the politicians to see the error of their ways. This is rather like being invited to a party along with 26 million other people and genuinely believing the host will be gutted when you don’t show up.
Many others didn’t vote because for them, voting is not a choice between many parties but a gold star for just one. If they are pleased by their chosen party, they reward it with their vote. If they are displeased, they don’t vote for anyone. This seems frustratingly self-defeating, but I understand the instinct. After all, how many religious people, when they find their prayers unanswered, petition other gods?
Some have channelled their disappointment in a more toxic direction, using the ANC’s continued hold on power as an excuse to surrender to their worst instincts. One particularly noxious post, shared on social media, bitterly declared that the ANC win was “a great thing for whites”. “Now when you see poor blacks with no food … we can say ‘This is what people want, they are happy’ … Today we are absolved from any fault or guilt, it feels GREAT.”
Another wrote simply: “The new South Africa is dead and I’m glad.”
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give such drivel more airtime than they deserve. These elections have shown that we’re highly allergic to parties dedicated to widening racial division: the overtly racist Black First Land First and Front Nasionaal won just 27,000 votes between them. If you accept that in general, ethnic nationalists also tend to harbour unsavoury ideas about other races, and you believe that most of the FF+ voters and a meaningful chunk of the EFF’s were motivated by race politics, you’re still looking at little more than 10% of the final turnout.
In this case, however, it is important to address these odious claims.
As to the first, well, that’s simple. As long as white people gloat over the misery of SA’s black poor as a means of ignoring the past, black people will vote for the ANC. They’d be mad to stop.The second, however, is more complex, and depends on what we define as “the new South Africa”.If that phrase refers to the hope, widely shared in 1994, that the ANC would deliver a just, prosperous, nonracial, educated society that was slowly becoming richer, then yes, the new South Africa is stone dead. If it refers to the Mandela era with its progressive put poorly defined and executed ideas of reconciliation and redress, then, alas, it is six feet under. We all understand why “the new South Africa” has become a phrase mourned by liberals, mocked by revolutionaries and loathed by reactionaries: intimately linked to a time, and therefore to the immense disappointments that followed that time, it has been ruined, apparently forever.And yet, as we dangle and wait to see what happens next, we need a new South Africa more than ever. I don’t mean we should revive the Rainbow Nation: that was a myth for a different time. But imagine if we could reclaim that precious word – “new” – in all its power and potential, and use it to talk, to debate, to argue, and, slowly, to build something different; something as yet untainted by failure and disappointment; something achievable.It was a beautiful idea, once. It can be, again. It must be.But for now, we wait to hear an answer to those four words: will Cyril Ramaphosa govern? We brace ourselves against more of the old. And we hope for the new.