The splendour of our country is often under-appreciated. South Africa is truly beautiful in so many ways that we no longer see it. Our history, our landscapes, our people, our quirkiness – it all makes our country unique. And it makes it home. But there is something horribly wrong with the beloved country, and it is destroying the fibre of our nation.
How would we record this period of the South African story for future generations? The convulsions over the ANC’s Mangaung conference will come and go; the pain of Marikana will fade; the lives of the poor will remain wretched and the rich will still savour opulence behind their high walls; the disenchanted will stay on the streets and on the koppies, and the political elite will continue to snub them and consider their misery with disdain; the state will continue to be the feeding trough of the powerful.
South Africa is the picture of a people disjointed from each other’s reality – a nation so consumed with many self-interests that the desperation of others is met with indifference. The spaces between us grow every day – every time the rains flood someone’s home, every occasion when a government official exploits their position of privilege for personal gain, every minute an elderly person stands in a pension queue or the sick struggle for proper medical care.
These are signs every day and everywhere of the disconnect which has come to define our society.
This disconnect underlines every aspect of South African life. The rich are disconnected from the poor, urban life is disconnected from the hardship of rural life, the employed are disconnected from those with no work and means of income, the self-sufficient ignore the hungry, the educated have no idea how difficult it is to access basic literacy in a South African classroom.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of this disconnect is the avarice of a political elite who stood on the shoulders of their people to ascend to power only to look on them with disdain once they got there.
When the ANC was banned and in exile, it was closer to its people; it was driven by a selfless common purpose to free South Africa from the yoke of Apartheid, and the only way it could have become one with the people was to be with them every step of the way. Now, the party of liberation is disconnected from its former self. It has gone from being led by a collective of heroic and inspirational figures to an assortment of factions, each disconnected from the other and from the people who loved, and were prepared to give their lives to the ANC of old.
The ANC may be connected to power these days, but it was never so disconnected from the millions it undertook to serve. The leadership rotates around power plays and games of fortune, the outcomes of conferences are tailored to satisfy the people in the room, a world away from the reality of life in South Africa, where petrol prices, taxi commutes, the cost of food, school supplies and the availability of medicine are everyday struggles.
The party is now engaged in a monumental battle over leadership, which has no resonance on the ground beyond the spectacle of the fight. Just like they did five years ago, the party leaders will walk away from this battle, some victorious, others crushed, without any regard for how this epic struggle for dominance will benefit those who depend on the ANC to lead them out of their desperation. They are too divorced from the millions outside the structures of the ANC to realise power battles alter nothing in the villages and settlements, in child-headed households, in hostels and the farmlands.
South Africa’s story was, is and always will be a tragedy of disconnect.
It is tragic for a nation to be so damaged and so scarred by an illogical system of statutory discrimination that it struggles daily to tear away from it. It was tragic to once have so great and so iconic a person as the founding president of a country that was once so in love with its own story. Nelson Mandela set the bar so high in leadership and in making us believe in a sense of nationhood that it has become impossible to attain again.
We are now disconnected from the miracle nation we once were. And it is a tragedy that the dream of liberation became detached from the promise of a better life for all.
Government is so disconnected from its citizenry that it continues to ignore the symphony of alarm bells ringing around it. Last week government demolished 51 houses in Lenasia, dragging people out of their homes and tossing them out of the street. They did this because they felt that vacant land was more valuable than roofs over families’ heads.
With a massive backlog in the delivery of proper housing and hundreds of poorly serviced informal settlements dotting cities and towns around the country, government officials decided that rendering 51 more families homeless was the way to go.
Yet this is the same government which was inaugurated with these words by Mandela: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another”.
Every time a government minister takes a flight of fancy or lauds it up in a luxury hotel, this ideal is betrayed, and our leaders become more disconnected from the foundations on which our democracy was built.
The shame that is Jacob Zuma’s presidential estate at Nkandla is the furthest possible point from that moment Mandela raised his right hand to take the presidential oath in 1994. Zuma’s disconnect from the people he serves is so stark that he has consented to the development of an opulent island to separate him from the sea of poverty in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The estate stands as a monument to this disconnect, so that the poor and the wretched may witness how political power is able to misuse the state to sponsor a life of magnificence.
A world away from Nkandla, Marikana is a microcosm of the disconnect between capital and its workforce, of the political elite and its primary constituency who turn the wheels of the economy, between trade unions and their members.
Up to the moment on 16 August 2012 when police rained down automatic gunfire on their fellow citizens, mining companies and those who profit from them continued to disregard the hardships and frustrations of their workers. The union leaders continued to believe that their proximity to political power was more important than the welfare of their members.
Political leaders treated the mining industry as a political chess piece in their power games, as well as their financial base.
When the policemen held up their guns at Marikana, they felt no connection to those on the other side as fellow South Africans, fellow workers and fellow pawns in the greater game. They killed them because they were disconnected from them. Even after the massacre, they continued to harass the community of Marikana because they felt no connection to their pain. And now the grand cover-up is because they are disconnected from the shame of their actions.
Still, the massacre which wrote Marikana into the history books could have happened at any mine anywhere in South Africa. Marikana was the place where every single of force of evil had aligned in that fateful moment, but make no mistake: there are hundreds of Marikana-like spots in this increasingly wretched land, waiting for their own forces of evil to combust.
Those of us who were shocked and continue to be outraged by what happened at Marikana are perhaps just as disconnected. We do not understand that the anger that boils over on the streets every day somewhere in our country is not just a sign of disillusionment but restlessness looking for a channel to explode. Our collective blindness may be convenient temporarily, but it will come back to haunt us.
South Africa is a country in decline because it is unable to recognise its disconnects and where they are taking us.
Where a leadership is so disconnected from its people, the vacuum creates space for exploitation or for people to seek leadership in dangerous places. The gap will have to be filled. All over the world, the gap was filled with the nastiest of the nasty, most destructive of the destructive: populists. The combination of populism and mass discontent is a recipe for disaster.
South Africa’s state of disconnect is unsustainable. The divides, which keep us apart from one another, are leading us down a dark road on which there is a point of no return. We need to listen, to understand, to reach out. We need to rediscover our common dreams and vision – not in sporting events and dates on the calendar, but in how we all relate to one another.
We seem to have become disconnected from the primary goal of nation-building. It is time to go back to the beginning and find our nation’s soul.