THE jets roared overhead and I could hear my friend next to me screaming her lungs out, an animal howl that came straight from her gut. It was a moment of intense emotion, the first truly uncomplicated feeling of patriotism I had ever had.
We were on the Botha Lawns at the Union Buildings on May 10 1994, for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. We felt that those jets were ours now, that we were at last one nation, fully in control of our destiny, charged with sacred purpose.
“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all,” our new president said on that day.
Eighteen years and seven months later, a group of business people put their money into buying ad space for a letter which included these words: “Poverty, unemployment, pervasive corruption, and failures in our education system and the rule of law remain serious challenges for our young democracy.
"There is an urgent need for a common response to put our country back on track to realise its economic and social potential. Left unchecked, our country is in danger of unravelling.”
And on the same weekend, at a tribute to Kader Asmal, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said: “I’ve never been so close to tears. I can’t believe that this is true. That we are where we are.
"I mean, things are revealed and it’s as if someone said: ‘And so what?’.
"We go on like nothing has happened.... What has happened to us? I mean, what has happened to us that we can just go on going on? Who in their right minds could have approved the expenditure of more than R200m?
"And to do it in that area, where you have this nice place standing up and just around there the squalor and poverty. What is the matter with us?”
This all happened at the same time as the SABC canned a talk show because it did not have a totally unnecessary ANC representative and dumped an interview with cartoonist Zapiro, presumably because he would cast aspersions on the president of this country.
I grew up in a country where the ANC was a mystical force – either it was a semi-messianic movement that would come and transform us one day, or it was the embodiment of evil, the communists who would take our homes away and torture us for our faith.
It is hard for people trained in the fear of the Rooi Gevaar to give up their beliefs.
I still laugh out loud when someone accuses this government of being communist or socialist. (So wrintiewaar, this government, which may mouth socialist words occasionally but has shown by its actions how thoroughly it has gobbled up and digested the worst kind of capitalism?)
Likewise, it is hard for those who had faith in the ANC embodied in Mandela’s words - the movement which would “reinforce humanity's belief in justice [and] strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul” - to grasp that, though they bear the same name, the African National Congress as a liberation movement bears no resemblance to the ANC now in government.
But I think that moment has arrived.
The evidence is there, in the words of true patriots like the 33 business people who signed that open letter, in the anguished mutterings of Tutu, in the rage and bitter disappointment expressed privately and, increasingly, publicly, by the remnants of the generations who lived more of their lives under apartheid than democracy.
They see a country being looted, a country where instead of moving towards greater equality, we are moving towards a much vaster inequality. A country where we seem to think plans are all that’s needed – not implementation.
Where crises can be addressed by talk shops, commissions of inquiry, sub-committees and spin doctoring. Are we insane, I sometimes mutter? We do the same things over and over again, as though the outcome might be different.
And still people die by the thousands on our roads because of a lack of effective enforcement (and the minister of transport tells us: “It is impossible for traffic officers to police the behaviour of motorists”); still children face end of year exams with books that barely have the shine taken off their covers; still we hear that surgeons operate by cellphone light in state hospitals; still old women and children go to bed hungry night after night in our neglected rural areas.
And while politicians spend millions on their own comfort (hotels, houses, cars, planes), victims of apartheid violations as identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission continue to struggle for the full reparations the commission recommended.
What is the matter with us, indeed. I think it would be the act of greatest patriotism, of greatest love for our country and our fellow citizens, to abandon our silence and both say and act, as loudly as we can: Not in my name!
Not in the name of democracy and freedom! Enough, enough, enough! It is time to become active citizens again, as Mark Heywood and Mamphela Ramphele have said in public fora; time to fight for a country which serves the needs of us all, not just the elite.
A good resolution for 2013!
*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.
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