Like many white South Africans before me I did my military service in the 1980’s, I was fortunate never to have been involved in combat and the closest I came to the border was the border between Johannesburg and Pretoria. I returned over the next few years to do ‘camps’, a short-term call-up to supplement the armed forces.
It was in one of these camps that I was stationed as a radio controller in Shoshanguve, west of Pretoria. Those were the days of the struggle and the “Rooi Geware” (The “Red Danger,” as communism was then called). Once again I was fortunate not to be on patrol or ever having to come face to face with ‘the enemy’.
That was our country back in the 80’s, divided on racial and political grounds, a third force operating, the army in the townships, people living in fear of being branded a traitor, necklacing (setting someone on fire with a car tyre around their neck), beatings, stonings, intimidation, distrust of our leaders and general dissent throughout the country… the more things change the more they remain the same,
Twenty years later it would appear from today’s headlines that Thabo Mbeki will be sending the troops back into the townships, beatings, stabbings, burnings, necklacings, rumours of a ‘third force’ and plenty of intimidation is back. People live in fear, distrust authority and find themselves once again divided.
Over the days of the recent crisis of violence against immigrant refugees from Zimbabwe, we South Africans waited and waited and waited desperately for a strong leader: in fact, for any leader.
There is a great scene in the movie The American President when the political advisor played by Michael J. Fox tells the president, played by Michael Douglas that the people want leadership… and “in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone.”
Finally, last week Mr Mbeki took time out of his busy schedule to step up to that microphone finally address the nation. But it was far too little, far too late.
When Mbeki assumed power in 1999 he was hailed as ‘Mr. Delivery.’
I’m not referring to the delivery service you call on a cold rainy Sunday night when even a trip to the local take-out seems too much to bear, I am referring to deliverance: a man who was capable of leading us to the promised land. Nelson Mandela had prevented a civil war, led us through the post-apartheid transition, and brought us back into a world that welcomed our new democracy with open arms. And then he did something truly remarkable… he stepped down! Feeling that his work was done, with his legacy intact, he made way for Thabo Mbeki.
No one expected Mr. Mbeki to have the same style as his predecessor, after all he had a tough job to do. His task was to lead us out of euphoria and into the reality. He was to guide us through the hard work the nation had to do in order to take its rightful place in Africa and the world. He was going to deliver jobs, housing, a thriving economy, he was going to deliver Africa to the world.
Instead, he got a little too caught up in his own press.
The man racked up more frequent flier miles than any South African leader before him. He became the globetrotting president of South Africa, an international traveler and world statesman. He had a solution for everything, quiet diplomacy for Zimbabwe, turnips and potatoes for AIDS and denial for just about anything else. According to our president, there is no crime, no housing problem, no inflation, no AIDS problem, no corruption.
As a result, there is NO leadership when we need it most! My favorite line from a recent speech he gave in an attempt to calm down the nation:
‘No one should doubt the capacity of the state to deal with criminal elements’… Sorry Mr Mbeki but EVERYONE doubts the capacity of the state to deal with criminal elements. Unless, of course they have connections to government leaders, then the state know exactly how to deal with them – with the utmost deference and courtesy.
I could of course join the calls for Mr Mbeki to step down, to take an early retirement and allow someone else (anyone else at this stage) to show some direction and leadership, but I am realist… this is not likely to happen.
Here is a man that entertained thoughts of an amendment to the constitution to prolong his reign and when he realized that would not work decided to try to hang onto power through the leadership of the ANC. That ended in just a little humiliation. When the MDC almost won the election Zimbabwe, Mbeki was almost able to deliver an ‘I told you so’ speech. But alas for Mbeki, his mate Mr Mugabe didn’t read the script – and so we ended up where we are today, overrun by refugees from Zimbabwe.
Naturally, the first reaction to the current crisis was denial: that the stories of South African violence coming out of Zimbabwe were fabricated and even if it were true, the Mbeki government was not to blame for the Xenophobia and was doing all in its power to curb the violence and take care of the foreigners…
Once Mbeki conceded there was a problem – in what became know as his ‘We should be ashamed speech,‘ it did exactly what your previous speeches have done… leave people shaking their heads in disbelief and reaching for a calendar to start counting down the days to the next election in 2009.
Here’s my message to President Mbeki: Thabo, we are stuck with you for another year or so. Enjoy it, try and mend your image if you can, and try your best to be remembered for something or anything other than your failure in Zimbabwe, your stance on HIV and your absence when we needed you most… that alone should keep you busy for a while.
In the mean time we will get on with the business of living from day to day and hope your successor is able to deliver. After all… better late than never.