SA still has time to defy the history of our continent

10 April 2010 - 19:22 By Sunday Times Editorial

Sunday Times Editorial: What a sorry disappointment our World Cup year has so far been. We sought the global spotlight with our bid to host the world's biggest sports event in South Africa and fully expected to showcase a democratic triumph, but the glare now upon us reveals only a demeaning stand-off between the extremes of our shattered society, set against a backdrop of mediocrity and corruption.

Where we had the right to expect a surge of hope, we now see only despair.

It is not too late, though, to reverse the slide. We are better as a nation than either Julius Malema or Eugene Terre Blanche.

The true character of our republic is determined by ordinary South Africans, who must decide whether to tolerate or to repudiate the disappointment of 2010.

As the clock ticks down to the kickoff in June, some in the world's media are openly mocking our attempt to defy the history of our continent. Others are voicing genuine concern about our ability to be who we say we are: the best hope for a developing, democratic Africa.

Causes for concern are stacking up far faster than reasons for optimism.

Malema - the spoilt trust-fund child of a brave revolution he is too young to have known - represents the very worst of the venality that is corrupting our public service and the ruling African National Congress. Spewing ethnic venom, he tramples our successes underfoot, ruins our reputation for insightful regional leadership and fuels the dormant fires of racial hatred.

At the opposite extreme is the legacy of separatist leader Eugene Terre Blanche, whose murder gives a negrophobic bully the undeserved aura of a martyr in a fight against minority oppression. His lieutenants clearly hope to rebuild their lost racist cause on the tomb of a man whose death appears to have nothing to do with the ideals he claimed to represent and everything to do with the South African scourge of crime.

Then a judgeship is awarded as a political favour, and the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Menzi Simelane, wastes no time in confirming the fears of those who opposed his inappropriate appointment. He has sidelined professionals with experience and proven track records and distorted the administration of justice.

The government talks endlessly about a crackdown on corruption, but goes after only the minnows, while the tenderpreneur sharks continue to swallow whole the big deals. As reported to parliament this week, one government department preferred to pay off a suspect official with more than R2-million, rather than mount the disciplinary processes that would, if he was guilty, have proved its commitment to clean government.

Willie Hofmeyr, the shining example of service before self, is told to choose between the two vehicles he has used to do good. He may remain head of the Asset Forfeiture Unit or the Special Investigating Unit, but the acquisitive elite cannot bear his scrutiny in both.

The ruling party continues, meanwhile, to build its election war chest with the profits of doing business with the government at the expense of civilians already reeling from the surge in taxes and user charges like road tolls and electricity bills.

We have lost Nelson Mandela's moral compass, and he no longer commands the presence to help us find it.

Self-interest trumps the national interest. Right and wrong are defined as profit and loss, not good and evil. The poor take priority in policy speeches, but come last in the implementation of state plans.

President Jacob Zuma remains largely silent on the issues that divide or concern the society he was elected to lead. When Malema trashes Zuma's efforts in Zimbabwe, the president says nothing. And when he does intervene, as he did after Terre Blanche's murder, Zuma falls far short of providing the inspirational leadership the nation craves.

It is a time to be very worried about this republic. But challenge can bring opportunity. The introspection following the murder of Terre Blanche and the debate about Malema's Shoot the Boer song are such opportunities.

There is reason to hope that these awful few weeks have jolted South Africans into reality. We are asking important questions about race and reconciliation, but we don't know yet whether we have the courage to face up to what we find. Our introspection must go beyond the issues of the retro-Right, Malema's foolishness and the squalid manifestations of racial intolerance.

We need to ask why we expect so little of ourselves and our leaders and what we - not they - are going to do about it?