Monday, May 11, 2009



By Fred Khumalo
May 10, 2009

South Africans need a forward-looking attitude to capitalise on what we’ve achieved
We should give his office due respect, until he abuses it. After all, we forgave some of apartheid’s worst killers

New beginnings — that’s the mantra on people’s lips as we ushered in a new president at the Union Buildings yesterday.

South Africans spoke through the ballot box, the markets have spoken favourably for a Jacob Zuma presidency and, diplomatically, no lesser a person than the outgoing British high commissioner to South Africa, Paul Boateng, has effectively given a Zuma presidency the thumbs up.

But, let’s face it, Zuma is no ordinary presidential incumbent. When Nelson Mandela decided it was time for him to go, he merely handed over to Mbeki. I shall not be tempted to analyse the Mbeki presidency or pronounce on the man’s leadership style, as is fashionable these days. Suffice to say that when it was time for him to go when his two terms had expired, he was reluctant to bow out gracefully.

So now, for the first time in post-apartheid South Africa, we have a president who fought for his right to lead this country. Again, I shall not be tempted to rake up the recent bittersweet events about corruption charges that were dropped, nor am I going to speculate on Zuma’s suitability as a leader.

What I want to explore is the gift Mandela bestowed on us as a nation. Having emerged from the bitter past of open racial animosity and bloody political strife, Mandela, at great risk to his credibility as leader of a hitherto revolutionary liberation movement, rolled up his sleeves and took his cudgel to the demons of hatred that were bedevilling our very existence.

Before Mandela, we were not a nation, but a hodgepodge collection of languages, ethnic groups and political entities. Mandela got us all to put aside our differences and set about the project of building a nation.

At the core of fashioning these disparate interest groups into a stable foundation for a nation, he sought to bring about reconciliation among the different races and political groupings.

But to bring about reconciliation there had to be acknowledgement on all sides of past atrocities, hence the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On the face of it, the resulting notion of a rainbow nation might have been a hollow, feel-good PR exercise. But the reality is that, cynical as many of us have been about it, it did bring us hope as a nation — hope that we could get it right; that we could build a better future for generations to come; that, without patronising each other, we could respect each other and benefit from our various experiences.

Nations are built on hope.

The many strides we have made over the past years — our readmission at the table of the world’s great nations, our membership of the United Nations Security Council, our leadership of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, our membership of the G20 — sprung from the world’s sense of goodwill that we would get things right; that we were the beacon of hope on a continent generally bereft of redemption.

But all those achievements were the by-product of our belief in ourselves.

Yes, nations are built on hope.

But hope has to be tempered with realism. As part of the reconciliation project, the TRC — which had been approved by the ANC, National Party and other interested parties — gave all sides of the conflict the chance to come forward and atone for past sins, and apply for amnesty.

But in his book, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, Mark Gevisser recalls Mbeki’s turnabout on the issue of the TRC: “In 1998, the differences between Mandela and Mbeki over how to deal with the past erupted over the report of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After receiving advance proofs of the TRC’s findings, Mbeki led the ANC in an unsuccessful legal attempt to prevent their publication. His primary objection was to the way the report had found the ANC guilty of gross violations of human rights for its treatment of detainees in its Angolan camps in the mid-1980s.”

Mbeki’s objections were particularly stunning, coming as they did from a person who had been supportive of the TRC. In fact, as Gevisser shows us in the same book, Mbeki had even said in an earlier interview that “If information came out that Thabo Mbeki was responsible for these various misdeeds. .. I could not be part of the process of constructing the new South Africa.”

Without making a meal out of Mbeki’s take on the TRC, it will be incumbent upon the new president not to make promises and undertakings that he cannot live up to.

As I said earlier, new beginnings. We should be prepared to respect the office of the president but, reciprocally, he must earn our respect by telling the truth and living up to the promises that he makes.

Zuma’s take on the TRC and the clouds that surround its findings might just be the place to begin. We could then feel safe in the knowledge that we have a president who is honest.

It is generally said that a good newspaper is a nation having a conversation with itself, and I believe what you are holding in your hands is a good newspaper, so let’s begin another related conversation.

I have just said that we hope Zuma will respect us as a nation, and he has said as much. The sense of goodwill is palpable, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s tap into the sense of goodwill by starting to respect the office into which the man is moving.

Which brings us to the small matter of whether or not it is still kosher to portray our president with the shower head stuck to his pate in cartoons.

There’s a debate on this issue, with some saying, in the spirit of one of the values we embrace as a nation, namely reconciliation, that we should give his office due respect, until he abuses it. After all, we forgave some of apartheid’s worst killers.

Another school of thought holds that we shouldn’t censor ourselves.

But to me, imbuing the office of the president the respect it deserves — until, of course, the president nullifies the deference — does not sound like censorship. Even if we were to lose the shower head, he could still be lampooned and satirised in cartoons and columns, if and when the occasion requires.

The American press had a field day with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, in both columns and cartoons, but they soon moved on.

Oh, light bulb moment! How about we drop the shower head, and the president stops singing Umshini Wam — which is not presidential at all — in parliament and at other state functions? He can continue singing it at ANC rallies, of course, but not in his capacity as the president of this country. Truce, Mr President? What does the nation say?