26 April 2017

South Africa: What Issues Should a New President Address?

Freedom Day 2017 comes at a time of great tension in South Africa and the world. Political parties across the world are in a state of flux. There is a consistent shift towards right-wing politics. Can we expect to see the same in our country?

I recently had dinner with two of my colleagues from the United States, both over-sixty journalists and authors. They found it difficult to figure out what would happen in their country from one day to the next. They were uncertain about what the next year holds.

I sit with the same difficulty now. Journalists and thought-leaders are meant to provide information and analysis that help the public make sense of the world. Our media outlets publish a great deal of disturbing detail of the machinations of our political parties, especially the ruling party. There is no shortage of information. But what about analysis of the present challenges and the way forward?

Four pieces have caught my eye recently (see them listed in the right-hand sidebar): One by Joel Netshitenze another by Neil Coleman, a third by Oupa Lehulere and a fourth by Yamkela Spengane.

These pieces give an insight into the workings of the ANC, the splits within the ruling party and provides explanations of the logic underlying the two major groups facing off against each other.

What we don't have yet is an idea of the way forward. Supporting one group against another will hardly solve the problems. We need a set of basic commitments that we need to fight for and assess who will deliver this best. At the moment, many people side with those they are most familiar with.

Some of the matters that I would like to see on a wish list for whoever will lead us next include the following: a commitment to scrapping the nuclear deal and developing green energy technologies; reduced data costs so that all South Africans can have access to the internet (this will immediately boost the economy); every civil servant and every business owner to sign an undertaking that they will not take or offer a ten percent commission when they procure and provide public services.

Those are my three for now. What would you add to this list? Perhaps we can have a minimum of ten issues that we expect the next president to make a high priority.

As we try to make sense of the challenges and figure out the actions required, it is perhaps most crucial that we remind ourselves that tough situations require cool heads. Leaders in every sector of society will have to find the strength to make sure that all of us don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

On Freedom Day 2017 I remind myself of a story about one day in a small village in Latin America. Colombian journalist and Nobel literature laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, tells this story at the Athenaeum of Caracas, Venezuela in 1970.

Perhaps at a time like this, focus on a non-biblical parable may be helpful.

The following is my summary of the Marquez parable:

Imagine a very small village where a mother is serving breakfast to her two children, a boy seventeen and a girl not yet fourteen. She has a very worried look on her face prompting her children to ask what's wrong and she replies: "I don't know, but I woke up thinking that something very serious is going to happen in this village."

They laugh at her and carry on with their day. The boy goes out to play billiards. When he does not make a simple shot. Everyone laughs. His friend asked him what happened and he says that his mind was on something his mother said in the morning. He was worried because she said something serious was going to happen in the village. Everyone laughed.

The friend goes home and tells his mother and family. A relative overhears the story and when she goes to the butcher she changes her order from one pound of meat to two pounds. "Better make it two, because people are saying that something serious is going to happen and its best to be prepared," she said.

The butcher repeats the story and soon the rumour spreads. The villagers buy up all the meat. The butcher has to slaughter another cow and soon that too is sold.

The moment arrives when everybody in the village stops working and waits for something to happen. Someone then says it is unusually hot. Another says it was always hot at that time of the day. But another insists that it has never been so hot. Then, without warning, a little bird flies down onto the village square. The news spreads. Everybody goes to the square and is frightened when they see the little bird.

Someone points out that there are always little birds that fly down. "Yes, but never at this time of the day," said a villager. It is a moment of great tension. Then one man announced that he was a real man and was leaving. His cart with children, animals, furniture passes by the poor villagers in the main street. They then too pack up and leave. As they leave one of them says: "Let no misfortune fall on what remains of our house." And then he burns his house. Others do the same.

And Marquez describes how the day ends: "They flee in a real and terrible panic, like an exodus in wartime, and among them is the woman who had the misgiving, crying out: "I said something very serious was going to happen, and you told me I was crazy."

Zubeida Jaffer is an award-winning South African journalist and author. She is based at the University of the Free State as Writer-in-Residence, tasked with reshaping the journalism curriculum.

Her work has earned her numerous local and international awards. These include the Muslim Views Achiever Award as well as the Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri in the USA. She is also the first woman in Africa to have won the coveted foreign journalist award from the National Association of Black Journalists in the USA.

Her memoir, Our Generation, eloquently tells the story of her emotional journey through the years of South Africa's turbulence into a new democracy. It has been translated into Arabic and published in Egypt. Her second book Love in the Time of Treason has been described as a "tour de force". Her most recent book, Africa The Untold Story, is the second in a series of pocket-sized books that she is self-publishing.

Ms Jaffer is a graduate of both UCT and Rhodes University. She also holds a masters degree from Columbia University in New York where she earned the award for best foreign student.

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