In Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton tells the story of a father trekking to Johannesburg to look for his son. Paton also tells the story of South Africa’s tragic history of violence of the state against the black population. A character in the novel commiserates with the unborn child “who is the inheritor of our fear”.
Recent reports of a spike in domestic violence, femicide and gang-related murders in Kenya seem to be a continuation of the tragic South African story.
But violence is not the only problem dogging South Africa. Since the departure of Nelson Mandela from the presidency, the country has gradually sunk into a maze of incompetence and thievery.
Under Jacob Zuma, a new term — “state capture” — was used to describe the repurposing of the state to facilitate thievery. And a recent expose by the BBC revealed that the Eastern Cape administration had been overwhelmed by Covid-19 because of gross mismanagement and thievery. The BBC report concluded that the health system in the province was on the verge of total collapse. Then on the heels of that damning expose, came the revelation that funds set aside to fight Covid-19 had been stolen. A furious President Cyril Ramaphosa, vowing action, described the thieves as hyenas circling a wounded animal.
And yet South Africa was once widely seen as an inspiration for an African renaissance. In fact former president Thabo Mbeki was referred to as the “renaissance man”.
This was because before he ascended to power, he had championed the reawakening of Africa. He castigated the building of magnificent palaces by leaders as the people eked out a tenuous living on the periphery of national political and economic life. Once in power, however, the man thought of as the “philosopher-king” who would bring a philosophers intellect to governance, came under the influence of pan-African nationalist philosophy. He bristled at any criticism of his government’s handling of violence and the Aids pandemic.
On the African front, the man who had once decried dictatorship and the building of castles at the expense of development began to coddle dictatorship in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. He criticised the indictment of war criminals by the International Criminal Court. His shortsighted policy towards the ICC and Zimbabwe would be exposed when the Zimbabwean economy collapsed and thousands of Zimbabweans fled across the border into South Africa. And when Omar Bashir of Sudan was toppled, it was discovered that his decades-old rule, in addition to the violence - was a sham of thievery and cronyism.
When Mandela was released from prison, American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said his life’s journey was a “paradigm for African renewal”. And indeed in the heady days of his release and ascension to power, there was a strong sense that anything could be overcome — dictatorship and thievery. But South Africa has not only failed to inspire Africa out of its dysfunction, but tragically, its own decline is underway. Cry, the Beloved Country