The passing of a generation that is our fountainhead

19 June 2011 - 07:19 By Jonny Steinberg

I have been struck by the depth of feeling with which South Africa greeted Albertina Sisulu's death. Her name had not passed anybody's lips in my presence in many months. It is quite possible that those I come across in my daily life had not thought of her in several years.

Image: Sunday Times

And yet her death was immediately and powerfully meaningful wherever I went, whether in the shack settlement outside Cape Town where I worked in the days before her funeral, or among colleagues. Understanding why this was so tells us a great deal about South Africa.

I often find I understand my own country better when I think about other places. In the past few years I have gotten to know Liberia very well. I sometimes play a mental game: what would South Africa look like today if our history had taken the course Liberia's did? It would go something like this:

Umkhonto weSizwe invaded South Africa with a guerrilla force some time in the early 1980s. No sooner had it crossed the border than it split into two factions. One made its way to what is now the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and set about slaughtering the inhabitants of every settlement said to support Inkatha. From the frightened population left in the wake of the killings, it recruited nine- and 10-year-olds, dressed them in makeshift uniforms and trained them to shoot. They would staff the front lines.

The other faction headed for the Highveld, where it seized several gold-mining towns, killed all white residents, fortified a route to the sea, and began bartering precious metals for arms. It declared the territory it controlled a country, appointed a cabinet and gave each minister an office and a coat of arms.

The ensuing civil war, which left one in 12 South Africans dead, finally ended in the early '90s. By then, soldiers on all sides were disillusioned and weary. The warlords knew there was more to be gained from peace than from more fighting. And so a ceasefire was called and elections were held.

But by now the ANC had so sullied itself that few people voted for it. The most credible people standing for office were in fact the verligtes of the old apartheid regime. Roelf Meyer became president of the first democratically elected government in South Africa.

This, roughly, is a South-Africanised version of recent Liberian history. When Liberians went to the polls in that country's first free elections in 2005, they voted into office Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the last finance minister of the hated regime that had governed before the civil war. There were few others to vote for.

The difference between our respective founding elections is overwhelming. We inherited a country in 1994. Liberia inherited a muddle of fiefdoms. Here, the party that came to power could credibly claim to have freed South Africa. Its moral standing was intact. It was fit to govern. Ours was a land in which sane people might invest their most intimate hopes in politics.

That is why Sisulu's passing is greeted with such gravity. Hers was a generation associated with a moment that does not come to every country: a moment when public office was genuinely sacred; when those in power genuinely embodied collective dreams. That is also why Sisulu's generation will remain our fountainhead, our source of public meaning, for a long time, long after everyone who met her in the flesh is dead. When our institutions and values corrode, we will accuse our leaders of forgetting the generation of Mandela and Sisulu. Those who aspire to wield power, whether the ANC, the DA or a political party not yet born, will have to claim with credibility to have inherited the values of the Mandela-Sisulu generation.

We mark Sisulu's death with such gravity because we know that once her kind is dead we will forever look backwards. We will be unable to understand our spirit without measuring it against their spirit, even as our sense of who they were becomes more mythical than real.

We are lucky to be able to look backward in this way. Some countries, like Liberia, do not have a founding generation with whom they might compare themselves. As far back in their history as they care to look, they cannot make out a time when public office was sacred. They move through the world alone, with no forebears to guide them.

Steinberg is with Huma at the University of Cape Town.