Break the placid surface of a pond with a stone, you will get a splash and ripples but calm will soon return. The same stone will shatter glass irrevocably. South Africa has the properties of the pond, not the window.
People who lose their nerve have nearly always been wrong about this country. If the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema scares you rigid, you probably don’t get it. If the machine gun song gives you the willies, you may want to think again. This is not to condone violent rhetoric, or to pretend that words don’t matter. It is just to say that if you fixate on the scary stuff, you are likely to miss the big picture.
I had a small epiphany on this score in March 1994. I was part of the herd of journalists, local and international, covering events in Mmabatho and next door Mafeking as the curtain came down on Bophutatswana and its president, the quisling Lucas Mangope.
Things got ugly and it was not just a matter of words. Many thought the future that haunted their nightmares had finally arrived. There was mutiny, the collapse of public services, the liberation of property from OK Bazaars. Extremist Afrikaners in Boy Scout uniforms attempted to come to Mangope’s rescue. They ended up gunning down black people in an orgy of racially-charged vigilantism after three of their number were publicly executed by a member of the Bop defense force.
That night at the Holiday Inn where the world’s media had congregated there was an excited sense that the cataclysm so many had been sent down to report on was now about to unfold. The following day, a Saturday, I climbed to the top of the local soccer stadium, the tallest structure in the area, to get a sense of what was actually happening.
Nothing. Peace and calm prevailed as far as the eye could see. No looters. No shooters. No angry crowds. Aside from the occasional passing Nyala, no sign of security forces. No white men playing soldiers in khaki shorts. There was smoke in the air but it had nothing to do with crowd control or arson. People were braaiing.
After a spasm of violence, the surface of the pond grew still – just as it would a few weeks later after thousands of Inkatha supporters flooded into Johannesburg and were fired upon by unseen snipers leaving more than 50 dead.
I was in an office few blocks away trying to make the deadline for a Business Day column. By the time I got to the scene, the action was over. It was as if a tsunami had swept in and out, leaving in its wake a jetsam of spears, shields and blood. Apart from a few police officers collecting forensic evidence (rather lackadaisically, as I recall), the square was still and empty, and life went on for the living. In the days that followed the center held as it had so often before and would so often again.
South Africa, having achieved democracy on its own terms, is not on a straight line trajectory to the promised land. Who is? We have our good days, we have our bad days, and there have been some terrible ones. But even the worst have failed to knock the country off its essentially positive course.
Opinions differ, obviously, as to whether the unscheduled departure of President Mbeki was a good day or a bad day. Personal feelings aside, my interest is in how it effects the country’s reputation, and on that, at least, I think Mbeki’s recall and replacement reflect none too badly. This was not the most orthodox of political transitions, but it was achieved within the rules, without tanks and with neither the suppression of liberty nor any unnerving shift of policy.
Yes, the statement on ministerial resignations was maladroit and costly. But that, in the broader scheme of things, is a niggle. What last week demonstrated was South Africa’s fundamental stability and capacity to withstand shocks. There will be more shocks, but we will absorb them like a pool of water, never shatter like glass.