Celebrate freedom today, yes, but more important, rediscover our lost unity
Exactly 25 years ago the world witnessed a new country being born as South Africans of all races voted in massive numbers to end apartheid - the majority of them casting a ballot for the first time in their lives. We made history, electing Nelson Mandela as the country's first black, democratically elected president.
His election focused global attention on SA; we were a new country with a new national anthem and a new flag, brimming with hope for the future. The world was amazed, in awe of our peaceful transition to democracy. The fall of the once monolithic apartheid regime, and the birth of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu dubbed the Rainbow Nation, were so unlikely that people everywhere called it a miracle.
With the eyes of the world firmly on SA, Mandela grabbed the opportunity and milked it for all it was worth, criss-crossing the country and the globe to spread his message of nation-building and reconciliation. Everywhere he went, people listened and responded positively.
Here at home Mandela walked his talk. Who can forget his visit to Orania, the whites-only enclave in the Northern Cape? Against the advice of many in his inner circle, he went to that bastion of Afrikaner recalcitrance to have tea with Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the man many viewed as the high priest of apartheid.
The iconic image of Mandela, wearing a no 6 rugby jersey and standing next to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar to lift the World Cup trophy in 1995, remains forever etched on South Africans' minds. It was through these and many other symbolic acts of humanity that he united a country that had been torn apart by race riots and the world's most heinous and evil social structure.
Mandela used sport to unify our nation. It worked like magic; within months of Pienaar and Mandela hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy, Bafana Bafana won the African Cup of Nations. Shortly after being welcomed back to international sport after years in the diplomatic wilderness, the country was being counted among world beaters.
Mandela served just one term and handed the baton to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. The Mandela years were behind us. While things were no longer the same, Mbeki focused on making the government work and the economy grow. While not as widely loved as Mandela, Mbeki, despite his flaws, did win respect as a visionary. Remember his African renaissance campaign?
No assessment of the last 25 years would be complete without a closer look at the years from 2009 to 2018 - a critical period during our first quarter century of democracy, because this is when the wheels began to come off. It all started with the election of Jacob Zuma as ANC president in Polokwane in December 2007. Less than 18 months later Zuma ascended to the highest office in the land.
There is much debate today about the Zuma years. Many, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, refer to "nine lost years". Ramaphosa has come under fire for this, including from some within his inner circle.Mbeki, in an interview in today's Sunday Times, says the Zuma presidency was not a total waste. While opinion on this remains divided, there can be no debate that his nine years in power were disastrous. We might have made huge strides in the past 25 years, and life is definitely better for most South Africans than it was under apartheid, but it is clear that we have now lost the plot.The glue that held this country and its people together in our first years is gone, along with the dream of building a nonracist, nonsexist and prosperous SA. The unity we showed the world during that brief post-1994 honeymoon is now fracturing. We are slowly being divided along racial lines. Today, as we reflect on these first 25 years of freedom, we need to find a new common goal that all South Africans can rally around.