Reader Blog
Reader Blog

Perestroika, SA style

After eight years of the theatre of the absurd ordinary South Africans generally welcomed Kgalema Motlanthe’s address to the nation as a breath of sanity. After the denialism, delusions and paranoia of the Mbeki era, simple commonsense and goodwill has rarely sounded so good.

But while we count our blessings, a note of caution should be sounded: the demons and distortions which afflict South African politics have not been vanquished. We can possibly discount the gloss applied to Mbeki’s legacy as normal political expediency, but we have yet to see the good intentions translated into real action.

A promising start has been made with some of the new Cabinet appointments, notably Barbara Hogan as Minister of Health, but much time and energy will be taken up over the next few months on electioneering rather than delivery.

Will the defeated factions arise to demand their pound of political flesh at the expense of the country as a whole? Will the abuse of transformation for sectional and personal advantage continue despite the inclusiveness and promise of accountability contained in Motlanthe’s speech? Will the tired formulas of class and ethnic conflict be resurrected to bolster political careers and protect the incompetent and corrupt?

The “winning-nation” status to which South Africa rightly aspires, depends on the free flow of information and ideas and are subject to the discipline of reasoned debate and free elections. In the absence of such democratic reality checks, South Africa will join the ranks of failed societies trapped in their laagers of illusion and intellectual stasis. We have been there before.

The infrastructure exists for success, but is not adequately implemented. The media, which is central to the democratic project, still nurses its shibboleths and exercises partial censorship over ideas and information which run counter to its ruling mythologies.

Despite the current political domination of the ANC with its alliance partners, they do not encompass the whole of the South African political reality. When is the South African public going to be afforded direct exposure to the political opposition, rather than through the pen and words of columnists and media personnel? When are South Africans going to be allowed to evaluate for themselves the relative merits of the competing political philosophies and political contenders on a regular basis?

Our foreign policy has been dogged by the same ideologically inspired unreality as much of our domestic politics. Energy and goodwill has been wasted on sterile debates on who is more African than his neighbour. In fact, we are primarily South Africans and it is that inclusive identity which requires validation and recognition.

This debate is linked to the grandiose, but ultimately illusionary and destructive, notion of an “African Renaissance”. When we needed a South African renaissance we wasted our energies and credibility on a project which is neither our concern nor within our power to seriously advance. That position does not exclude pragmatic involvement in Africa where it can advance our regional economic and other interests.

Again, not unrelated to these fantasies, has been our contradictory desire to be taken seriously by the established democracies while flirting with states like China, Libya, Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe and others. This has accomplished little other than calling South Africa’s judgement and own commitment to democracy into question to the detriment of our economic prospects.

In the same self-delusional vein has been the egregious demonisation of Israel by both the political establishment and significant sections of the South African media. South Africa has hardly been the sole culprit in this regard, but this particular misreading of reality is important because of the damage it does to this country.

Because of its irredeemably flawed conceptualisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a colonial liberation struggle, South Africa has failed to recognise that Israel has been the most extraordinary success story — economically, scientifically, culturally and politically — of the modern era. Its success is especially relevant to South Africa because it has been achieved despite enormous ethnic and cultural diversity, educational and economic inequalities, and in the face of constant existential threat.

Even now its total population, Jewish and non-Jewish, is less than half that of Cairo alone and it occupies a generally arid land area only slightly larger than Gauteng. It lacks natural resources and its achievements has been accompanied by a vigorous democratic culture and free press.

Of course, this is attributed to Zionist control of the world economic system according to the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Substitute Jew for Zionist, and the rantings of Ahmadinejad are indistinguishable from those of Hitler; yet it is with Iran that the South African government has maintained friendly relations.

Thus the chance of a productive engagement with Israel to South Africa’s benefit has been forfeited because of doctrinal rigidity and ideological misconceptions.

I, for one, hope that the South African version of perestroika initiated by the dismissal of Mbeki, will be taken up by all sections of South African society. All great enterprises require a readiness to scrap the intellectual and emotional ballast that hinder success. This is the time to begin.

Reader blog by Mike Berger