In a tale of two nations, a case of shared values - Hindustan Times
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In a tale of two nations, a case of shared values

Jun 08, 2024 11:40 PM IST

Legacy and contemporary pragmatism can and must combine in South Africa. There are lessons for India as well

“India-South Africa: Two struggles, one freedom.”

Former South African president Nelson Mandela is seen with KR Narayanan and AB Vajpayee after he received the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize. (HT files/Arvind Yadav) PREMIUM
Former South African president Nelson Mandela is seen with KR Narayanan and AB Vajpayee after he received the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize. (HT files/Arvind Yadav)

This was a slogan about India and South Africa I heard with joy and repeated with zeal during the little under two years that I was privileged to work in India’s High Commission in Pretoria (1996-1997). Those were Mandela years. The great man, freshly released from his 27-year-long captivity under the apartheid regime, had won for his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a spectacular majority in the first multi-racial general elections of April 27, 1994. Having got to my new station just after one of our general elections, I augmented the magnetic slogan to say “India-South Africa: Two nations, one democracy”.

Though in the election his ANC had obtained a majority of seats in the National Assembly and was fully within its rights to form the government on its own, Nelson Mandela set up a government of national unity. He asked the party of the apartheid era, the National Party (NP) and the ANC’s rival in KwaZulu Natal, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), to join the cabinet, disregarding their poor numbers in the National Assembly.

One of Mandela’s legacies was trust. He wanted to start off the republic trusting people, especially those on “the other side”. He reposed in politicians of ideologies different from his own, like his apartheid NP predecessor FW de Klerk, whom he made deputy president and Inkatha chief Buthelezi to whom he gave the ministry of home affairs.

From among those on his “own” side, notable was the presence of many Indian South Africans in the Parliament elected on ANC tickets and many cabinet ministers. Not surprisingly, Mandela was told by African colleagues in his party, “There are so many Indians holding high positions in the new South Africa …More than proportionate to their numbers…” The response was classic Mandela: “The number of Indians in high positions (in the new South Africa) is not proportionate to their population but proportionate to their contribution to the struggle (for our liberation).” Valuational politics cannot go further than that.

And so Mandela’s government was a coalition but much more than one. It was a confluence of colours but also a reservoir of values, the principles coming out of a passion for inclusivity and for the sake of his ethical satisfaction.

Time does not stand still. In the three decades since the 1994 elections, with senior leadership fading away, the ANC’s sway with its deliriously loyal mass base changed, its vote share dropping from 70% in 2004 to 59% in 2019 to 40.18% now. Thirty years after Mandela’s first election victory, nearly two-thirds of black South Africans steeped in poverty and reeling under a 32% unemployment rate have made the role of President Cyril Ramaphosa unenviable. In the just concluded elections, the people of South Africa have not voted the ANC out but have said to it: “The struggle that brought you to office answered the hunger of our souls, what we now need is something that answers the hunger in our stomachs.”

Lubna Nadvi, senior lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu Natal, in a communication to this writer, says tellingly: “While some may have managed to improve their lives due to access to a good education, decent employment, good healthcare and other social benefits, it has become abundantly clear that the majority of citizens have not benefited from the transition to democracy. They still languish in poverty and continue to face many of the same struggles they did during the years of apartheid. In addition, various other social ills such as crime, gender-based violence, corruption and state capture have reached almost epidemic proportions in the last three decades.” And she adds: “The rainbow nation is now more of a distant memory than a current reality.”

The current electoral reality will require Ramaphosa to form a coalition that will not appear like a rainbow on an applauding sky and come, in fact, not from any firmament at all but from terra firma. Finding coalition partners from either the Right-wing Democratic Alliance, which is now the second largest party after the ANC or from the uMkhonto weSizwe or MK Party, the Left-wing outfit formed last year by former President Jacob Zuma, whom Ramaphosa replaced, will be an exacting operation for him. Elinor Sisulu. author and daughter-in-law of the great anti-apartheid leader Walter Sisulu, in an assessment of the post-election scene, says: “The ANC has to rely on coalition partners, yet to be identified. For coalitions to work, leaders must transcend political divides in the interest of the nation. There is no indication so far that this will be the case. “ So, does that mean goodbye for the politics that made Mandela opt for a coalition and later, leave office when he need not have, Walter Sisulu to stay off it when he need not have, Desmond Tutu embark on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Judge Chaskalson head a constitutional court when that was supremely problematic? Does that mean that golden moments like Mandela’s rollback of South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme and of the death penalty may now never again be expected of post-2024 South Africa?

The genocide case brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on December 29, 2023, by Ramaphosa’s South Africa against Israel regarding its conduct in the Gaza Strip as part of the Israel–Hamas war tells me no, South Africa will find a way to do right by its people’s quotidian entitlements and its legacy of principled politics. South Africa’s voters can never want their leaders to bid goodbye to the personal attributes of Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Mandela and Sisulu.

Let no drums be sounded for the funeral of something that has not died. Valuational politics will not die in South Africa. It is one thing to concede that the era of idealism in South Africa has given way to realism, but quite another to say that South Africa has orbited out of the cosmos of values.

Legacy and contemporary pragmatism can and must combine in South Africa. And perhaps Ramaphosa, who stayed off power for decades after liberation, may startle the world by saying his people, not he, wield power. If he were to form a composite ministry of national unity with the self-denying legacy of trust Mandela showed in 1994, he will coin a new slogan valid for both South Africa and India post their elections: India-South Africa: Two republics, one ethics.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator and diplomat. The views expressed are personal

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