This election is already the bloodiest, most destructive, divisive and demeaning in the history of democratic South Africa.
Naturally, in the lead-up to the first elections in 1994, there was mayhem and even fears of civil war, which were no doubt far worse than what we are seeing now, and we would do well never to forget that.
However, we were made to believe in the years since then that we had risen above some of the darkness that characterised the apartheid administration. Nelson Mandela, as the first legitimately elected president, spent most of his energy in the early years of democracy trying to build a nation that could be at peace with itself, and truly capitalise on all its abundant potential.
What would Mandela have made of the actions and words of his eventual successor, President Jacob Zuma, who is trying now, once again, to blame every possible national ill on white people? What would he have made of Zuma calling the DA “snakes” and his attempt to belittle DA leader Mmusi Maimane as nothing more than a puppet in the service of white people? What would he have made of Zuma’s clumsy and desperate attempt to rewrite history and somehow make out that the DA and the apartheid National Party are the same thing?
This was the same Mandela who magnanimously praised his then political opponent, Democratic Party (predecessor to the DA) leader Tony Leon for his valuable contribution to democracy. Leon had engaged in a somewhat distasteful “fight back” campaign in the 1999 elections (for which he and the DA have long caught a great deal of flak, notwithstanding Leon’s pride at how it managed to grow the party’s voter base).
Despite that, you wouldn’t have heard Mandela calling Leon a snake and, dare we say it, it also seems inconceivable that Thabo Mbeki would have stooped to such a level.
One may feel we can dismiss all this talk of snakes as mere politicking ahead of elections. But it is dangerous, and where does it stop? What will he call the DA and white people next? Cockroaches? In April of 1994, democracy dawning in South Africa was not the only major African event that month – there was also the matter of a huge genocide in Rwanda that claimed as many as 1 million lives.
We dare not forget the lessons from both countries. We must continue to behave like the South Africa of 1994, not the Rwanda of 1994.
Someone with moral authority and a proud track record does not need to resort to the politics of the gutter and call others by insulting and dehumanising names. A true leader would not have to take refuge in the old and worn-out trenches of racial politics, to thus encourage voters to choose the ANC for the primary reason that more white people support the DA than support the ANC.
Invoking the hollow threat that white people would even be able to re-implement apartheid policies more than two decades into democracy is, of course, completely baseless, and nothing more than Zuma’s wing-and-a-prayer hope that black people can somehow be frightened into choosing the ANC. Such tactics of banking on loss aversion can take any party only so far.
It smacks of major desperation in the face of evidence that, in particularly Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, the ANC may not win every metro and is certainly not assured of winning majorities in places where it was once the shoo-in.
Zuma is now not only undoing the nation-building of the 1990s with every speech, and attempting to set race against race, but he is leading a party that is itself deeply divided. Investigations suggest that the murders of more than a dozen party members and councillor hopefuls in KwaZulu-Natal are possibly linked to the unhappiness around the removal of Senzo Mchunu as premier, and that there are two clear factions engaged in a low-level war.
Also, who could forget the scenes in Tshwane after the announcement of Thoko Didiza as mayoral candidate? The ANC could only stand idly on the sidelines, hoping that the chaos would subside. Gone was the sort of charismatic powers of persuasion of a Madiba, who had managed to avert a civil war with his soft and emotionally charged words to the nation after the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993.
That kind of leadership is gone. Let us hope it is not gone for good.