‘ The courts, despite some energetic rigging attempts by the majority party, still push back against a delinquent state; civil society, far from being muzzled, is fully throated in its denunciations of state capture and corruption’
Does distance lend enchantment, or just more distance?Writing this column in Tel Aviv, on the day Israel celebrates its 69th anniversary of independence, just days after South Africa commemorated its 23rd Freedom Day, lends no easy answers.My brief spell in the Holy Land is to teach Masters students at a university here a course entitled “Democratic transitions and recessions”.
The case of South Africa provides no end of lessons on how to overcome centuries of division and conflict and then embrace democracy. But, after two decades, we have slipped into a grey zone where waves of freedom get caught in an undertow of semi-authoritarian backsliding.
Very few countries have successfully made the transition from totalitarianism to freedom without a hangover from the past that trips up the best prospects for the future.
And while the angry waves of populism that swept Britain out of the EU and crashed Donald Trump into the White House appear, in France at least, to be on the wane, even the most settled democracies are under stress.
On Monday, South Africa and the world witnessed the shaming and humbling of its deeply unpopular President Jacob Zuma. He rode the wave of populism into office in 2007 and now the very forces that propelled him into party power are, on the evidence of his rough ride in Bloemfontein, determined to be rid of him.
For all Zuma’s reliance on a deeply undemocratic security apparatus, his undisclosed ties with authoritarian regimes elsewhere, and his serial undermining of the constitution, the parts of democracy that work in South Africa do limit him.
Unlike in Venezuela and Zimbabwe, two states which the economic adviser to new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba thinks we should emulate, you do not get shot or go to jail in South Africa for booing the president. The courts, despite some energetic rigging attempts by the majority party, still push back against a delinquent state; civil society, far from being muzzled, is fully throated in its denunciations of state capture and corruption.
Of course, there is still a great deal of self-censorship, and Helen Zille recently indicated that what she terms “race shaming” is muzzling expression at such bastions of the open society as the University of Cape Town, which apparently has banned the display of certain artworks.
South Africa’s big advantage lies in the starting point it made back in 1990 as we embarked on the hazardous, unprecedented and uncharted journey from apartheid to democracy.
I reminded my students in Israel that the outcome that eventually was inked in the constitution we all live under today was hardly assured at the time the transition commenced. That was when FW de Klerk turned his back on 350 years of settler and colonial and apartheid history. He certainly did not intend to surrender power. He hoped to share power, but he landed up — like other conservative reformers in the world — being swept aside by the very forces his initial changes unleashed.
Of course many of the accomplishments and compromises South Africa achieved are undone from the vantage point of today by the invented history that has recently replaced the real facts which propelled this country to the democratic perch it now occupies.
But for all the contests about South Africa’s past and future, the country has undeniably settled its existential questions — who should govern it and how to square the circle between majority rights and individual freedoms.
I was reminded of just how important that fundamental settlement is when on Monday evening I attended a rather unusual event in Tel Aviv.
On the eve of Israeli independence, this country commemorates its fallen compatriots who have died in the endless conflict and wars which have been waged ever since its uneasy national birth in 1948.
But the event which my Israeli-born wife and I attended was unusual in such a divided country. It was an alternative Memorial Day service organised by an Israeli-Palestinian group that brought together family members from both sides who have lost loved ones in the enduring violence here.
On our way into the venue in a basketball stadium, a crowd of right-wing nationalists draped in Israeli flags shouted insults with intense fury. My wife, among many others was called (in Arabic) “the whore” or the “daughter of a whore”. And the Hebrew chant of “traitor” was used against the throngs entering the stadium.
For the optimists here, this was noisy proof of Israeli democracy at work: people could express themselves on both sides. The police kept the group of protesters well apart from the peacenicks entering the stadium, who once inside were treated to searing testimonies by Israelis and Palestinians who shared their grief.
But while freedom of expression and the right to dissent are a feature of daily Israeli life, they do not apply across the Green Line where the West Bank, entering its 50th year of Israeli occupation, lies. And so the Palestinians who were meant to speak at the event did not receive entry permits to attend and were reduced to participating via video link from the West Bank. This underscored just how far from resolution the existential issues here are and just how differently democratic life — and its opposite — is experienced on either side of the divide.
But before drawing any simplistic moral outrages from their exclusion, the background fact was that a few days earlier a Palestinian with an entry permit for NGO work had perpetrated a terror attack in Tel Aviv, not far from the very venue in which we were meeting.
No two conflicts in the world — and no menu for resolving them — are ever exactly alike. But there are some powerful lessons to draw from any one of them.
And, just perhaps, South Africans of all races and political opinions should celebrate both the democracy under which they live and the real facts which gave rise to its achievement.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.