SA right now - apart from the brawling and the burning that continue unabated - seems and feels like a huge talking shop. We're probably the best exponents of the Churchillian aphorism that to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war. Except we do fight as well.
We're a truly loquacious lot. If some smart alec in search of a quick buck were to come up with a world talking contest, we'd walk it with ease. We're that good at it. Instead of work we talk.
But talking can be useful. We shouldn't disparage it. After all, the Codesa process got us out of a jam when many had given us up for dead. There's a renaissance of these confabs, probably stimulated by President Cyril Ramaphosa who, in his inaugural state of the nation address, reeled off six or seven such summits and conferences and initiatives on jobs, youth unemployment, investment etc. And then there are the commissions of inquiry, which could give the impression of merely kicking the can down the road, postponing things, or a reluctance to take tough decisions.
Commissions take time and money and often lead to nothing. The inquiry on the funding of higher education, for instance, recommended that free education was unaffordable. But Jacob Zuma, in a desperate attempt to give Nkosazana Dlamini- Zuma a leg-up in the fierce struggle against Ramaphosa, announced on the eve of the leadership contest that students from poor families won't pay - without even checking with the Treasury whether there was money in the kitty.
We're now living with the consequences; VAT is at 15% and it's primarily the poor who are now suffering. Rob Peter to pay Paul. Even the recommendations of the Marikana commission have not been fully implemented.
Sometimes politics intervene. What started off as a genuine attempt by parliament to gauge public sentiment on land expropriation without compensation was undermined by Ramaphosa's midnight announcement that the governing party had decided to amend the constitution anyway, even before the consultation had concluded. It reduced the entire process to a sham; the currency was knocked off its stride and it's continued its inexorable slide since.
Thorough reflection, questioning or even reminiscing - the mere fact of knowing that one has survived what could have been an even worse calamity can give rise to a joyful sensation - are often a necessary prerequisite for a nation seeking some healing after a period marked by trauma.
The Germans went through such soul-searching after the Holocaust. What type of society were they to have committed such unspeakable evil? How could they even begin to adequately make amends for such untold suffering? What kind of society did they want to create; and more important, how could they prevent such wickedness from ever happening again?
Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africans went through a similar, if smaller, process. Victims had their say and perpetrators were identified, then absolved or punished. The TRC has come under harsh criticism for allegedly getting the monkeys to carry the can while apartheid's organ grinders got off the hook, and for not sufficiently rewarding the victims. But that's not the commission's fault. Like the new political dispensation, the TRC was merely the beginning, a foundation for nation-building. Those in power needed to take the baton and run with it.
SA is emerging from a new nightmare after Zuma's presidency, and it is again in need of purgation. Not that Zuma's wrongdoings, serious as they are, come anywhere close to the evils of apartheid. The advent of democracy, attained after years of struggle, had left us on such a high that Zuma's infractions became a huge letdown.
The Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture should therefore not be narrowly focused. It should not simply concentrate on nailing the bastards (most of whom are known anyway). It must fulfil the same role as the TRC, help us to understand how we got into such a mess, the extent of the damage, and then cauterise the wound and cleanse our souls.
That won't happen if it only targets state capture suspects who may not be too forthcoming anyway for fear of incriminating themselves. Anybody with a smidgen of information should be made to sing like a canary.
The problem for the commission, which the TRC didn't have, is that the perpetrators of the criminality being investigated, namely the ANC, are still in power. They decided on its mandate, and it will be up to them to act on its recommendations, almost akin to an accused who has a remit to decide whether to abide by his sentence.
The ANC this week tried to heap all blame for the recession and everything else on Zuma. But for all his sins, Zuma was no autocrat. He didn't seize power by force. He was elected and chained to power by the ANC. They were inside the tent with him cheering him on as he plundered and looted with gay abandon. So they're not simply complicit; they're responsible for the awful mess the country's in.
The Zondo commission gives Ramaphosa an opportunity to level with the public. As Zuma's deputy, there is very little that could have escaped his attention. What did he know, and why didn't he do anything about it?
He should therefore be leading all ministers who served under Zuma to give evidence, mea culpas included, to the commission. These things took place under their noses. They must tell us what happened. We will be all ears.