Going to hell since 1652

Charles_Bell_-_Jan_van_Riebeeck_se_aankoms_aan_die_KaapLet me apologise. I’m about to use a four-letter word.

It’s a word that people have been using far too much lately and it will probably make you sick to hear it again, but I’m afraid I have to, so let’s get it out of the way.

Parents, cover your children’s ears because here it comes: SONA.

I know. It’s gross. But it’s the only way to sum up Thursday night. The “glitch“. The pre-planned brawl. The giggle. All playing out with the slow inevitability of a gigantic turd being squeezed out onto our national consciousness as if by some gluttonous titan purging itself over parliament.

It felt so appalling that I was sure that when the turd was finally delivered complete, its stink would reach the rest of the world. As President Jacob Zuma announced that foreigners would not be allowed to own land (and his ministers thanked the gods of hypocrisy that their properties in Europe would not be similarly restricted), I tweeted that the “loud crashing sound you’re hearing in the distance is the rand”. It hit a nerve. Hundreds of people retweeted it. Yes, we agreed, this was big. This was Rubicon big.

The next day, however, the rand was stronger and the JSE was up almost a full percent. I had to admit that I had been seduced by the idea that South African democracy matters to the people who run the world. But the markets know what the rand and Zuma are worth to them and they had barely blinked.

Exceptionalism has deep roots in South Africa. Perhaps it’s one of the few things that unites us, this belief that we are the exception to the global rule. But it also means we can get melodramatic. While I was throwing my toys over financial Armageddon, others were writing articles about the end of days. Some suggested that democracy had been “broken” on Thursday night. I understand their anger, but I would suggest that the only thing the ANC has broken is 1,000 years of feudal rule in Southern Africa by punctuating it with a 20-year experiment in democracy that now seems to be winding down.

Others claimed that South Africa had “stopped”, as if it had ever really started. A few even said that Zuma had stolen the country, which was patently silly: the country has been stolen goods since the Khoi and the San were first dispossessed, which means at worst the president is just a common fence.

Fool us once? Shame on you. Fool us twice? Shame on us. Fool us for centuries? Damn.

Dozens of columns; hundreds of outbursts on social media; thousands of bitter words; all have swirled up into the sky to form one enormous statement of gloom: South Africa is about to go to hell. But once you take a deep breath, and recognise that we might have a tendency to lose perspective, you have to admit that South Africa has always been about to go to hell. Just ask a Khoikhoi herder in 1652. Ask a Xhosa homesteader in 1775. Ask any neighbours of the Zulus in 1815. Ask a Voortrekker in 1835. Ask a black farmer in 1912. Ask a white miner in 1922. Ask a Jew in 1948. Ask anybody except an Afrikaner nationalist in 1961. Ask whites in 1976. Ask blacks in 1985. Ask the Conservative Party and AWB in 1994. Ask Zuma supporters in 2005. Ask Mbeki supporters in 2008.

On and on we go; noisy, rash, insular, generous, ignorant, capable, deeply mistrustful of authority and at the same time completely enslaved to it, begging to be abused by one rotten leader after another. And so it will go after Zuma. We will drag ourselves free of the slime and cynicism of this time, and eagerly, gratefully, surrender to some new gang of nincompoops who promise the world and swear that this time it will be different. Fool us once? Shame on you. Fool us twice? Shame on us. Fool us for centuries? Damn.

Perhaps that’s what happens when you think you’re special. Maybe we’ve slipped into a kind of denial, seeing only the home we want to see, unable to see it for what it is. Most of the time I live in that delusion, trying hard to see an accountable, industrialising modern democracy. But on Thursday night I saw another South Africa; not a nation but just a small frontier town at the end of the railway line. A place haphazardly knocked together by prospectors and preachers, cattle ranchers and con men; peculiarly tolerant of difference in the way that misfits are, but at the same time always up for a public hanging or a bar brawl. A place ruled by a long line of venal mayors in the pocket of local mining- and railroad barons, where justice is arbitrary and violence is imminent. It’s proud of itself in a small kind of way, which is why it will stay like this until the railroad is rerouted and it starves to death.

We’re a dusty main road haunted by a saloon, a jail, a bank and a brothel. Could we become a nation? Sure. We just have to stop being ourselves.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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