Recently a fellow blogger wrote an excellent column criticising South Africa’s shameful decisions with regard to rape, Burma and Zimbabwe at the United Nations Security Council.

But, he diluted his fine comments by limply saying toward the end that his comments came “as an ANC supporter”. What did he mean by that? That criticism only has value if it comes from those that normally support an institution or individual? Should we only heed critiques from friends and ignore the comments of others? Or was he saying, “I’m critical, but still cool”? Isn’t that a fundamentally anti-democratic stance? The essence of any democracy is freedom of expression and as such can never, should never, be qualified.

Why, I wonder do those who criticise Democratic Alliance mayor Helen Zille never qualify it with the words “as a supporter/member of the DA”? Should George Bush only heed those who couch their dismay at his actions with the words “as a supporter of the Republicans”?

What wishy-washy political correctness is this?

It’s a lot like saying, “some of my best friends are …” Jews, Catholics, women, black people, men, gays, Muslims, insurance salesmen … before one launches into a vitriolic attack of the group in which one claims to have friends. It’s a term that when used is usually a sure indicator that the user probably has no friends in that group, but uses it as a shield because he or she believes it is considered “not nice” to criticise a certain group.

Such qualifications are the provenance of wimps — if you mean it, say it; if popularity is important to you, then you should never be a public commentator.

But most of all I want to interrogate what it means to be a member of the African National Congress — does anyone know any more? If you say Freedom Charter to most nowadays they either think it’s a BEE code or a new clothing label.

I’m a charterist, so I’m part of those (probably the most depressed group in the country at present) who believed in a preamble that said: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white … together equals … The rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex.” Under the section “There shall be houses, security and comfort”, it read, as an example, “no one shall go hungry; a preventive health scheme shall be run by the state”.

I loved the closing words: “These freedoms we will fight for side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won our liberty.”

They were an echo of Albert Camus’s words as a French resistance fighter in World War II when he wrote in a 1943 “Letter to a German friend” (later published in Resistance, Rebellion and Death): “This country is worthy of the difficult and demanding love that is mine. And I believe she is decidedly worth fighting for since she is worthy of a higher love. And I say that your nation has received from its sons only the love it deserved, which was blind. And you who were already conquered in your greatest victories, what will you be in the approaching defeat?”

Read those words again and reflect on them.

We may have the vote, but we’re still not free.

When I look at the carefully polished German vehicles of some I used to call comrades, who lack even the manners to thank a waiter who places something before them, when I read of the billions they have accumulated or hear their scornful dismissal of striking workers or endorse the arrest of people demonstrating because they don’t have clean running water or have night buckets spilling over with uncollected sewage, then I wonder precisely how they interpreted the Freedom Charter.

Renewal is now the rallying cry in political fora — what does it mean? I suspect it is an indicator of regression. This is a country that has become preoccupied with its Rs — we began with reactionaries and that led to revolution, reform, reflection, rebirth and renaissance — and retarded progress in attaining the values of the Freedom Charter. This is not the non-racial, non-sexist South Africa for which the Freedom Charter and those who visionaries who rejected racial narrowness in 1956 called.

Some of the charterist economic principles would not work in a globalised world — but they underscore a powerful call for social justice. Ignoring that call has seen the poor humiliate President Thabo Mbeki at regional ANC conferences.

It is surprising too that some commentators have expressed shock at the ANC Women’s League endorsement of Jacob Zuma over Mbeki. While Zuma may have faced a rape charge, it is Mbeki who has consistently failed to do anything to combat the high rates of rape in South Africa; he has allowed hundreds of thousands of rapists to go free over his two terms as president. Less than 2% of reported rapes result in convictions and Mbeki ensured that those conviction rates will fall by disbanding the specialised sexual offence units last year. So which man is worse when it comes to rape?

Two-thirds more women are infected with HIV than men. Who is that had to be forced by the courts and the disgust of the world before allowing medication to prevent the transmission of HIV to babies? Who still prevaricates on giving post-exposure prophylaxis to rape survivors to ensure they can’t get HIV? Who is failing to address the problems of children orphaned by HIV? Mbeki’s government is to blame.

It is women who face the brunt of poverty and of violence in this society, Mbeki has not only been an Aids denialist; he has also refused to act to end poverty and violence in our country. The vote this December is not for a president; it is against the president — it is an angry vote and those who could have served us better were too arrogant or wimpish to step forward in a timely manner. In times of such crisis, being politically correct is wrong.

The man who wanted to be Africa’s next Nkrumah and who thought he could do it on the international stage has returned home to find he is despised.

Retarded progress in social justice has seen more than 6 000 demonstrations a year, a figure quoted by political economist Professor Patrick Bond from police sources. Most of those demonstrations are about failures in the delivery of water, education, healthcare and the vision the Freedom Charter promised.

Mbeki condoned police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi allowing police to open fire with rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas on those with legitimate protests against the failure of political promises. Television news again looked like we were living through the 1980s.

Mbeki has succeeded in creating a more powerful elite than even the Afrikaner Broederbond; Zuma will attempt to create greater social justice, but in the process he needs to ensure that he doesn’t bring the house down on our heads.

Let’s look at Mbeki’s South Africa: the Sunday Times reported early this year that South Africa is the world’s fourth-largest creator of new dollar millionaires with close to 50 000 in the country.

Since 1994, according to the BusinessMap Foundation, there have been R225-billion-worth of BEE transactions, with 173 empowerment deals, worth R75-billion, in 2006 alone. The recent University of Cape Town/Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing and TNS Research Survey estimates the buying power of the country’s 2,6-million black diamonds at about R180-billion.

Not bad — but this in a country that added a million more unemployed in the past 10 years. We have 40% of our nation unemployed, according to Stats SA. The Human Sciences Research Council tells us that 54% of our people live in poverty. Many HIV antiretroviral roll-outs and tuberculosis medication schemes fail because those drugs need to be taken with food; if taken without food they make the patient ill — and because so many of our people are without food, they give up the drugs. How can we turn our face to such poverty?

Alexis de Tocqueville writing of democracy in America almost 160 years ago discussed 18th-century England allowing the aristocracy always to prevail and “manage public affairs as it wished”. He said this was a “mistake, due to those who, constantly seeing the interests of the great in conflict with those of the people, have thought only about the struggle and have not paid attention to the result thereof. When a society really does have a mixed government, that is to say, one equally shared between contrary principles, either a revolution breaks out or that society breaks up.”

The Freedom Charter called for unity: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white… together equals … The rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex.” We have not only failed to attain that vision, but we’re also moving backwards to a society that again wants to be defined by race and colour and where the only gender that is respected is male.

So what does it mean when we talk of the African National Congress? Is it the old ANC, the one that believed in social justice, non-racialism, non-sexism and a unified South Africa, one where our constitution reminds us diversity is celebrated?

Or do we support the new ANC that presents itself as race-obsessed and pre-1955 pan-Africanist? Do we support an ANC that seems to be largely composed of self-interested opportunists and corrupt nepotists?

Do we pack for foreign shores or do we stay, exhausted because 13 years after the struggle ended, we now realise another needs to begin — one for social justice twinned with a growing economy sensitive to globalised needs? Do we work to implement the dream of a nation that is non-racial, non-sexist, a place where we feel safe and are proud to call home? Or do we sit back and criticise and immediately apologise?

This country is worthy of my demanding love and in return it demands that I don’t just write, don’t just talk — that I act to make this, my home, a place of safety, that I act to protect the interests of the 42-million others just like me who want opportunity for their children. It’s begging the same of you.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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