Hearts on our sleeves

Abstract: How can we expect to win by ‘working together for a better South Africa’? We each need to take our respective bows…

As far as international sport is concerned, August was a month of mixed blessings for South Africa: We were emasculated in Sri Lanka; in Athens we scored what SABC radio news called a ‘haul’ of medals (less gold medals than a single swimmer – Michael Phelps – and only a few more in total than we collected 12 years ago in Barcelona); and yet we powered our way to victory in the Tri-Nations. Does this mean our cricket team are pathetic, our athletes kind of so-so, but our rugby team are kings of the world? No. But it does convey the impression that magic muti works.

Think about it. Other than sheer bulk, what is it that our rugby team had that was missing from our cricketers and athletes? The answer was there for everyone to see when the Boks beat Australia in the final match of the Tri-Nations. It was on their sleeve: It was 46664 – former President Mandela’s former prisoner number. Our boys in green and gold played with the number on their sleeves ‘as a sign of respect for Madiba’. One would like to believe that the Madiba magic was somehow transmitted through the patch, infused into the players and then, coursing through their veins, it powered them to run swifter, jump higher and kick truer.

Of course that’s not really true because there’s no such thing as magic – it’s just an illusion. Yet there was nothing imaginary about how the Boks played. They played outstanding rugby. Perhaps then they were inspired by the gentle, yet powerful humility of Madiba, arguably one of the world’s most loved and respected leaders. A man whose compassion after 27 years of malicious incarceration helped heal a divided nation. If this is the case and they are thinking of making the number a permanent fixture then they need to get real. And so do we. (It is at this stage of this column that some hackles will no doubt rise and scathing e-mails will be mentally composed in preparation for their dispatch with seething haste to the editor of this newspaper.)

Relax, and read on. If there is something that we South Africans are guilty of, it’s that we don’t diffuse responsibility for our successes, but prefer instead to pass them onto someone more revered, and, apparently, more deserving. It’s the African way: someone is our leader and they are the sole source of inspiration and decision-making – a so-called moral supreme authority – and who better than Nelson Mandela?

The fact of the matter is that there is someone better and I’m sure Madiba would agree. He is well aware of the fact that South Africa’s road to democracy upon which he walked his first steps to freedom was paved long before he left Victor Verster Prison. In fact as the first President of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela would have inherited a country wrenched with unbridled anarchy if it hadn’t been for thousands of committed people who saw the power of open conversation.

Burned into the memories of those who lived through the most strident demonstrations for democracy are images of violent unrest. Fuelled by a media that relished the drama these images projected, an impression was created across the world of South Africa’s downward spiral to self-destruction. But there were two levels of interaction between the liberation movement and representatives of the socio-political status quo: the one brutal and unyielding and the other considerate and open.

As far back as the mid-70s representatives of academia, business and the clergy held talks with liberation leaders. Driven by the logic evoked by scenarios of irrational destruction, these conversationalists started to lay down the intellectual and moral framework for a peaceful settlement and a sensible transition of power. Bit by bit, intelligent and honest conversation took hold of the people of this country.

In short, unlike most transitions from authoritarian rule that are spearheaded by iconic figures that captivate the imagination of the downtrodden, the democratic evolution of South Africa was fundamentally the product of a general mass movement. In twos and threes and more, South Africans across all spectrums engaged in conversation – hidden at first but then, as the logic of a peaceful negotiation took hold, increasingly open.

Long before the Codesa talks, ordinary South Africans, often from across the socio-economic and political divides, were engaging with each other. Community political organisations, students’ and women’s groups started an informal network that wove together the first threads of a democratic constitutional infrastructure. After 1990 civil society activism, through stakeholder forums, helped shape policy regarding virtually every government function.

As we moved towards the first democratic elections in 1994, most South Africans stepped into the light and forged the social bonds that helped keep us together; and, over the ten years hence, we have enthusiastically embraced the rewards of normality.

Why then do we not take credit for it? Nelson Mandela was, and still is, a remarkable man, but then so is everyone who, in their own small way, helped edge us towards democracy and has celebrated our freedom in all its manifestations. Why do we insist in absolving ourselves of any part of its making?

The sooner we realise what we have done and translate that into what we can do, the quicker we will become a winning nation. We don’t need the symbols of any particular authority to give us the edge; we simply need to sharpen that which got us to where we are now. It’s indefinable I know, but it’s out there somewhere and, hopefully, being bred into each one of us. It’s a belief in ourselves, and the realisation that we have achieved what few other nations ever have and ever will. I have a feeling it’s in our hearts, and when we wear that on our sleeves instead of a number, we will know that we have finally matured into a sporting force to be reckoned with.

Published in the Sunday Times on Sunday 05 September 2004