WITH the African National Congress party’s figurehead Nelson Mandela in fragile health and the country facing a series of difficult
problems, this is a critical period for South Africa.
It was late afternoon, and they were still
cheering. Every few seconds another name was read out, and the families –
some overflowing into the lobby outside
the hall – jumped up from their chairs with
It was graduation day at Johannesburg’s
grand, elegant Wits University this week.
I sat on the steps outside the hall, soaking
up the noisy waves of optimism that kept
Inside, Ahmed Kathrada seemed to be
doing much the same. He is 83 years old
now, and a little frail but still very much
the same rigorous intellectual heavyweight
who spent quarter of a century in prison
with Nelson Mandela.
Mr Kathrada was at Wits to receive his
own honorary doctorate. Afterwards,
away from the well-dressed crowds
streaming out of the hall, he sat down
carefully, smiled, and said: “A day like this
makes you feel good about this country.”
Of course, we then started talking about
everything that was going wrong – about
the prevailing sense of gloom, even crisis,
that has settled on South Africa.
“I just wish we could unite,” he said solemnly, “as we used to in prison, to fight
a common enemy”.
It has been a rough few months here: The
killing of 34 workers at the Marikana mine; the corruption and chaos exposed almost daily within the ruling ANC; the downgrading of South Africa’s economic prospects by ratings agencies.
But it is worth remembering
that crisis is something of a speciality
If South Africa were a television show, it
would probably be a Mexican soap opera –
raucous, full of absurd, repetitive plots,
with the promise of imminent disaster and
salvation around every corner.
It is as if the nation cannot quite let go of
its genuinely miraculous, dramatic past and
accept the fact that it has become just
another messy, complicated country.
Of course, this week we have all been
reminded of that past with the news that
Nelson Mandela, now 94 years old, is back
Over time most South Africans have
quietly come to accept the fact that he
will not be here forever.
But it is striking how many people seem
genuinely worried about what will happen
when he is gone.
It used to be a few shrill, nervous white
people who talked about how it was only
Mr Mandela – with his moral authority –
who was preventing the black majority
from throwing them out of the country or
worse. But now you hear black people
worrying about what will happen too.
I spent an hour recently, arguing with a
bright student who was convinced that
civil war was inevitable.
Such fears are, I am sure, nonsense. In
political terms South Africa has already
been living in a post-Mandela era for
longer than it would like to admit.
But the ruling party – the ANC – still leans
heavily on its liberation history, and on Mr
Mandela in particular, and it does have a
lot to lose.
This weekend the ANC is gathering, as it
does every five years, to decide who
should lead the party and which policies it
The run-up has been quite a spectacle. You
could argue that the furious power battles
are a sign of healthy internal democracy,
or you could look at the political murders,
and the greedy factionalism as proof that
yet another African liberation movement
has pressed the self-destruct button.
It is worth mentioning that the ANC, for all
its flaws, has plenty of good people – and
achievements – under its belt.
And it can adapt. After the disastrous HIV/
Aids denial of the past, President Jacob
Zuma’s government has rolled out the
right drugs, and life expectancy for South
Africans has jumped from 54 to 60 in five
years. A spectacular leap.
Over the course of the ANC’s weeklong
conference there will be plenty of talk
about President Zuma’s alleged corruption,
and attempts to unseat him.
There will be angry calls to nationalise
South Africa’s mines, and seize all white-
owned farms. And there will be more
sober, sensible debates about how to
make this a less unequal society.
It will all matter hugely – and at the same
time – make little practical difference.
The ANC has been noisily pondering these
questions for years but its leadership is
now safely ensconced within South Africa’s
growing, aspirational middle class, and it
seems to have little appetite for
And so a fractious nation will rumble on.
For me, the most troubling thing today is
not the messy politics, or the inequality,
or the unemployment – which, when you
include the informal sector, is not as high
as often claimed.
The really shocking thing is this:
When it comes to primary school
education – this country ranks among the
very worst in the world. Below Bangladesh.
A generation is being forsaken, which
makes the smiles of those graduating
university students and their cheering
families this week, all the more moving –