Like many, this Easter I feel that the dream of South Africa feels more like a nightmare. Personal interests, corruption, private gain, entitlement, a vicious contempt for the poor and the common good, a culture of blatant lies and cronyism — and possibly worse — dominate our public landscape.
This past week, the nightmare got worse as the full impact of President Jacob Zuma’s recent actions (the cabinet reshuffle) unfolded, leading to the country’s credit downgrade. They have devastated our hopes for the kind of foreign investment which we desperately need to grow our economy and create new jobs.
The impact of the president’s actions on consumer confidence and trust is immeasurable. Tens of thousands of jobs are directly affected by just a 10 percent drop in consumer confidence. If we cannot turn the situation around, we face the prospect of employees being fired; shops shuttering; malls closing; the poor unable to afford bread, paraffin, electricity and the cost of burials; possible hyperinflation — it’s as if we are entering the Zimbabwe moment.
Hope amid gloom
In this hour we grieve because the words of writer and philosopher GK Chesterton, used to such effect by the anti-apartheid cleric Trevor Huddleston as apartheid’s grip intensified in the 1950s, are again apt now:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Our nightmare is similar to that under which the ancient Hebrews once lived. In our case, while we aren’t being disadvantaged by colonial slavery any longer and apartheid is over; some of our institutions, part of our economy and some among our leaders have become slaves to a new form of oppression.
The promise of Easter, which Christians around the world and here in South Africa celebrate, can be likened to what I call the new struggle in South Africa. In that struggle, the realisation of the promise of Easter is measured not only by how soon we replace the current administration, but by how well we ready ourselves for what comes next.
How do we prepare ourselves for the future after the end of a deeply corrupt regime? After Zuma has fallen, will those who benefit from his patronage fall too? Because if we change leaders but the patronage system that the current leadership has produced doesn’t change; if state-owned enterprises, the prosecution and law enforcement agencies remain captured by corrupt interests, we are no better off.
Over the past days, hundreds of thousands of South Africans have issued a call to the country’s political leaders. They have called on them to come out from the places that hold them in bondage to the death of greed, in bondage to the lust for and the seduction of power, in bondage to the shadow of moral corruption that has enveloped South Africa.
Time for selfless leadership
Ordinary South Africans have called to their leaders, to those who are economically, socially and morally deaf; to those who ignore the crisis of distrust that has cast the longest and darkest shadow the country has ever seen in the democratic era, ordinary South Africans have said:
Don’t stay in places that will pull us all into a culture that wounds or kills us. Don’t be overtaken by the culture into which our president and some of our elected officials have descended. Don’t ignore the pleas, cries and profound sense of pain and suffering that plague our wonderful and beautiful nation.
South Africa needs real leaders who must be ready to sacrifice all to ensure dignity, equality, opportunity and freedom for all of our people. We cannot and should not ever be afraid to raise our voices for honesty, truth and compassion, and against injustice and lying and greed.
It’s time to take sides. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said,
If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. We need to rise up, to stand up and speak up for our rights, our children’s rights and our grandchildren’s rights.
Let us acknowledge that the old order, the economic system which makes us one of the most unequal societies on earth, must go. Let us challenge the narrative of the corrupt, who use that old order as a fig leaf behind which they hide their greed. As I have said before, we need to overcome the skewed racial ordering of our economy and the obscene inequality which it produces. Not by indulging the rapacious greed of a few politically connected individuals, but by building a new, fairer society which distributes wealth more equitably for all.
Let the different interest groups and elements of our society which are committed to these ideals — whether rich or poor, whether black, white, coloured or Indian, whether Christian, Communist, Muslim, Hindu or Jew — let us all find one another in a powerful, united coalition which puts first the interests of the poor and thereby the interests of all of us.
Working for a just South Africa
While former presidents Nelson Mandela’s and Thabo Mbeki’s administrations made mistakes, their record shows that if government pulls together representatives of different interest groups, we can find rational, workable solutions to our most difficult problems. In that spirit, let us turn this moment of crisis into a moment of opportunity and convene a convention on the emotive land issue, along the lines of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) to negotiate a solution. And, in the light of the downgrades of our credit ratings, an economic Codesa too.
In this new struggle, let us reject the participation of white racists who don’t believe that black people are capable of running a country or an economy. They are not welcome on marches and protests. Let us also not be distracted by hurtful and anachronistic comments on colonialism.
Let us also reject those who want an unequal, tribal, sexist and racialised South Africa, and who exploit the views of a minority of racists to portray their opponents as stooges and to threaten white compatriots for exercising their civic rights.
To all politicians, we appeal to all of you to rise above your petty everyday squabbles and obsessions and to recognise this as a turning point in our history. I want to issue a special challenge to our Members of Parliament: when you are called upon to decide on whether you have confidence in our president, vote for the country’s future, and not for your own pockets. You should know that:
South Africa will be watching.
The world will be watching.
Vote your conscience.
This is an edited version of the sermon by the Most Reverend Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town, prepared for delivery at the Easter Vigil at St George’s Cathedral on April 16, 2017.