What is it about sport that provides so many cautionary tales for life generally and politics in particular?
Such an irreverent thought fleetingly occurred to me as I half-watched the ANC’s 105th birthday bash at Orlando Stadium on Sunday.
Perhaps it was the venue itself: like the organisation it hosted, pretty ancient and somewhat modest in size and redolent of decrepit architecture. Especially compared to the far larger and more modernised temples of football so nearby, such as Soccer City and Ellis Park. Of passing interest, of course, until the recent electoral haircut which reduced the ANC in Gauteng to opposition status in its two biggest cities, it was those giant stadiums which once hosted the ANC. Orlando was recently reserved for the ANC‘s nemesis, the EFF.
But perhaps it was not just the size factor but the deeply unhappy memories which Jacob Zuma associates with Soccer City, where at Nelson Mandela’s funeral service in December 2013 he was roundly jeered by the capacity crowd.
No matter: the message the president delivered was appropriately threadbare and well-worn. Backward-looking, cliché- ridden and offering to honour, in his centenary year, the life and times of former ANC president Oliver Tambo.
Perhaps, aside from his incontestable leadership qualities and his birth date in 1917, there is some comfort in reverting to Tambo.
After all, he was the last ANC leader who did not have to shoulder the burdens of governing South Africa and the messy compromises involved when a revolutionary movement has to confront the limits of power and take responsibility for accounting for failure.
Zuma gave, to be fair, half a nod in this direction. Noting the local election losses last year, he claimed, “The ANC has heard the message of the people” delivered at the polls. But, then again, he did not offer one concrete suggestion as to how the party intends to rectify the situation or act on the message other than an invocation to unity, and a promise to stamp out gatekeeping and a call for “exemplary lifestyles”, whatever that might mean.
Meanwhile, across the oceans on Monday night another organisation mired in scandal and corruption went about honouring its high achievers. Fifa in Zurich hosted “The Best” in football awards.
In a tough field for “coach of the year”, the award was given to Leicester City‘s Claudio Ranieri. In a world racked by disruption everywhere, from politics to the workplace, winning the Premier League as 5000-1 outsiders, which Leicester City achieved last May, was the unlikeliest ever outcome in modern sport. It even puts Brexit and President Trump in the shadows.
“Fairy-tale achievement” was how the world media trumpeted the crowning of Ranieri, who took his team from the verge of relegation to triumph in football‘s most expensive and competitive tournament outside the World Cup.
But like all fairy-tales, this one comes with a fat health warning which resonates way beyond sport and right back to weekend events at Orlando Stadium.
In the past few days the improbable English Premier League winners of last season were back in more familiar territory: flirting with relegation, and, in the words of sports writer Rory Smith, “all thoughts of a repeat title long gone”.
Ranieri himself noted, “The first six months of 2016 were fantasy, and the second six months were reality.”
Or as former Leicester great and leading commentator Gary Lineker noted, “It’s not that anything has gone particularly wrong this season. It’s just that this is what Leicester is, what it has always been.”
Given the dreary diet offered by Zuma from Orlando — more land expropriations, more infrastructure spending and more of the same failed education system — in other words the same recipe to address crucial challenges , Lineker could have been addressing this country’s ruling party.
South Africa, in its golden moments as it turned from apartheid to democracy more than two decades ago, stopped pursuing both the familiar and the failed. With visionary leadership which matched the joint expectations of a divided people we defied the odds. Like Leicester, but far more consequentially, we provided ourselves and the world with a reminder that “things that cannot happen do, and things that did not happen do”.
But as we survey the minefield of challenges — a country on credit downgrade watch, unemployment nudging nine million, divided communities and stunted constitutional instruments — our rulers and political masters should ponder for a moment as the new year starts
Do we want to be remembered as a fading and golden footnote for the one big thing we got right in 1994 or as an also-ran country of failed promises and dashed expectations in the decades since? If 2017 is to be characterised by the all-consuming battle to lead the once much admired, once upon a time morally significant ANC, perhaps the leadership contenders should answer this essential question.
And when they provide party and country with the answer, they should also rethink the heresy of Jacob Zuma in proclaiming the ANC‘s right to rule until “Jesus comes”. Local election results suggest otherwise, just as the comforting assertions which fed the fantasies of Hillary Clinton and David Cameron dissolved when they jarred with the disruptive realities of 2016.
Lineker was both right and wrong about one thing which provided sporting history with his most memorable quote:
“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans always win.”
That might have been true in 2014 but in the world of disruption is unlikely to hold. Same with politics, even here in the far south. Past certainties are no guarantee of future achievement or outcome. Welcome to 2017.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA