Sunday, April 19, 2009



By Mondli Makhanya
Apr 18, 2009

Popza’s was buzzing that night in early May 1994. The venue, a really cool tavern in Cape Town’s Guguletu township, was where Cape Town’s political and intellectual set used to gather to discuss matters of the cosmos while sipping liquids and chewing flesh. Those were heady days. There was a high-voltage current in the air, so there was never any shortage of banter.

It was there that the usuals gathered that night to watch FW de Klerk concede defeat and officially pass the baton to Nelson Mandela.

In his televised address, De Klerk paid tribute to his rival: “Mr Mandela has walked a long road and now stands at the top of the hill. A traveller would sit down and admire the view. But a man of destiny knows that beyond this hill lies another and another. The journey is never complete. As he contemplates the next hill, I hold out my hand in friendship and in co-operation.”

Mandela responded with his trademark generosity and humility: “ I stand before you filled with deep pride and joy — pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your own. And joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops — free at last!

“I am your servant. I don’t come to you as a leader, as one above others.”

When he was done talking, the country exploded with joy. Even those who had stockpiled baked beans and canned pilchards went out into their gardens, dug up their supplies and joined the party.

The patrons of Popza’s plonked their glasses down, ran out onto the street and joined the grand and noisy parade.

Cars hooted. Fireworks went off and the party went on until sunrise.

It was like that in every village, dorp and metropolis as South Africans celebrated the coming of this sweet thing called freedom.

Most in this republic have nostalgic recollections not too dissimilar to my Popza’s memory.

I speak about that day because as we approach this election you can feel that current again.

Electric as the atmosphere might be, we know we could never replay those scenes. That was a unique moment in history. We were a happy people then, united in believing and dreaming of a decent society. In subsequent elections we went about our voting and swearing-in of governments without drama and excitement.

A sizeable chunk of voters didn’t even bother to vote, either out of apathy or in protest. But this too was okay, because we were now a normal country. Democracy was something we took for granted.

Former president Thabo Mbeki put it most aptly in his 2004 inauguration when he affirmed this nation’s abiding commitment to have democracy as something that flows through our every vein.

“Despite the fact that we are a mere 10 years removed from the period of racist dictatorship, it is today impossible to imagine a South Africa that is not a democratic South Africa. In reality it is similarly impossible to meet any of the enormous challenges we face, outside the context of respect for the principle and the practice that the people shall govern,” he said.

“Nobody in our country today views democracy as a threat to their interests and their future. This includes our national, racial and political minorities. This is because we have sought to design and implement an inclusive democratic system, rather than one driven by social and political exclusion.”

Those were great words, which said to everyone listening that if there was anything South Africa was never going to compromise on, it was her status as a democracy.

This past Wednesday, South Africans living abroad were evidence of this as they queued in New York, London, Canberra and many towns across the globe. They danced, chanted and spoke of feeling like they were back in 1994. Watching those scenes, it made one wonder why the government had made such a fuss of letting expatriates exercise their democratic right.

But I digress.
This coming Wednesday, South Africans at home will get to have that feeling.
After the tension of the early days, which were characterised by disruptions of meetings, the election campaign has been a relatively normal one. Wednesday will be a normal day, which will be followed by normal celebrations and commiserations. So will inauguration day.

Basically, over the next few weeks we will be affirming our status as a normal democratic country.

But normality should not breed complacency. The most normal countries in the world have regressed into varied stages of abnormality, the US under George Bush being the most glaring recent example.

The danger is that once we cast our ballots and get over the post-election pageantry, we will return to our own little spaces and just be private citizens going about our private lives.

It is precisely when that happens that the powerful usurp what rightfully belongs to the people. It is precisely why we spent recent years allowing our democracy to be eroded by someone who had assured us that it was “impossible to imagine a South Africa that is not a democratic South Africa”.