Letter From Jo’burg

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No sooner had I left my U.S. home and all its fractious politics that I ran into the same scenario thousands of miles away in my other home, South Africa. I came back to brutal opposition politics and a bubbling cauldron of dissent within the ruling party not unlike America’s Blue Dog Democrats.


In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress Party has always been a broad church, accommodating political stripes from the left, right and center. Tensions among them have always ebbed and flowed, sparked principally by the left—the Communist Party and the powerful labor unions. And in the current politics, tensions are flowing powerfully. The left elements are raising their voices, if not yet flexing their muscles, trying to steer the government into a more socialist agenda, pushing it to abandon the fiscally conservative, business-friendly, free-market approach of the previous government led by Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki’s government stimulated business opportunity and economic growth, along with major efforts to attract foreign direct investment. But massive poverty remains, giving ammo to its critics. The left was a key actor in the drama that unseated Thabo Mbeki and elevated Jacob Zuma to the country’s presidency. And to almost no one’s surprise, the chickens are coming home to roost.

The left is demanding more government spending and the scrapping of inflation targets that guide monetary policy. It’s vehemently arguing that it is entitled not only to be heard, but also to have its way as the main center of political power. And it has even gotten personal, with Julius Malema, the firebrand president of the ANC Youth League, calling Jeremy Cronin, the Communist Party’s deputy secretary general, a “white messiah,” for disagreeing with his call for nationalizing the mines and the manufacturing sector. Cronin responded by calling Malema “a racist.”

The Communist Party refused to allow Malema to speak at its recent conference and greeted him at the door singing a Zulu song that, when translated, went like this: "This dog Malema is disrespecting us.” This reminded me of “You lie!” shouted at President Barack Obama by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., except in this case the singers were addressing the president of the ANC Youth League (whom the current senior president has said could be country’s next leader). Moreover, all of them were the same color and in the same party.

The infighting reached such a fever pitch that President Jacob Zuma had to step in. For days, suspense intensified over how Zuma would resolve this embarrassing public spat. But over the weekend, he came out with the verbal equivalent of his theme song, Mshini wam—“Bring me my machine gun.” And while he stopped short of the heavy reprimand that Malema wanted and that the hard-liners expected, nevertheless, in the belly of the beast—the South African Communist Party Congress—Zuma told the left in no uncertain terms to get back in its political cage and chill, telling his audience there was a need to "clarify the rules of engagement."

Well, that tough talk to the left-wing made clear where Zuma stood. And to the credit of the independent media in South Africa and the ANC, which criticizes the media but doesn’t try to shut it down a la Zimbabwe, the public was also well-informed of his position, and that included the business public and the international investor public which has gotten a bit leery during the nationalization debate, but which is needed for economic growth. Hmmm. Wonder what Obama told his dissenters? Can’t find it in the U.S. media.


Not surprisingly, some South African commentators criticized the movie for not being all things to all people … as one writer wrote: “The nuances of the racial and political conditions in this country have been obviated in favor of creating an American-friendly product that conforms to the ubiquitous makeover formula where there is a clear distinction between the “before” and “after” scenarios.

The critic, Mary Corrigall, of the Sunday Independent, goes on to talk about the still unresolved issues that Mandela had hoped to instill in the nation’s consciousness: reconciliation, forgiveness and national unity. And she argues, “They continue to haunt our society.” No quarrel from me there. Perennially, the debate over de-racializing South African rugby rages on—on the sports fields and in Parliament.


But I think the film illuminated a moment—and yes, a feel-good moment—that many today never knew about or have forgotten. That’s why I think so many whites came to see Invictus feeling uncertain or out of place in the new South Africa. My glass-half-full analysis leads me to think that whites flocked to see a movie that recaptured that moment of hope as a way of re-orienting themselves to the still-possible promise of a unified nation. Certainly, sport has been a way of bringing the country together. I shall never forget broadcasting live a few years ago from a square in downtown Johannesburg, filled with South Africans of all colors, hues, and socioeconomic classes as they waited comfortably together, to see on a big screen whether South Africa had succeeded in its bid to host the 2010 World Cup. The togetherness of those multitudes was as starkly visible as their anxious anticipation. And when the announcement finally came, pronouncing South Africa the winner, the scene of unity—of black South Africans, Indians, whites and those who still call themselves Colored tearfully hugging each momentarily caused my voice to crack as I reported this scene to the world, trying ever so discreetly to wipe my eyes.

To be sure, the country is populated with many who fought Mandela and regarded him as a terrorist, even after his election—like the father of the Springbok’s captain (Matt Damon) in the movie—and many who never answered Mandela’s call to come forward and confess their heinous deeds against black South Africans and their white supporters.


But this country, this democracy, my second home, is still young and still needs many efforts if it is to ever realize Mandela’s dream. And when I look at my first home, I have many of the same feelings, especially when I chronicle the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center and its documentation of the dramatic rise of racist hate groups in the United States—a more than 50 percent increase since 2000. And, as I wrote recently for the BBC Focus on Africa magazine: “And those who are the most vicious and vocal are finding kindred spirits on the airwaves, where their ratings from racist rants are skyrocketing.”

Neither one movie, nor one sporting event is going to change that. But in an era where information is so diffuse and when the information media are struggling to define and keep its place as a purveyor of news, I think it’s important for efforts like Invictus to fill the void—at least partially. There will always be critics who will have their say, and I count on them to tell us what else we need to know.


Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance.