Some years back I was invited to Emperors Palace, Kempton Park, to address a business conference. It took prodigious feats of imagination to remember that this glitzy casino had, in its previous life as the jerry-built and misnamed “World Trade Centre,” been the venue for the constitutional negotiations which birthed a democratic South Africa.
Outside the gaming areas a few heroic sepia-tinged photographs of Nelson Mandela and other delegates to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) were dotted. Of course Codesa collapsed shortly after commencing business in May 1992. After massacres and violence, mass action and much off-site bargaining and arm-twisting or worse, proceedings recommenced in April 1993. The less grandiose titled “multiparty negotiation forum”, had succeeded by November 1993 in fashioning an interim constitution and the transitional arrangements which bridged the old and new orders.
I was reflecting on the clashing dramas and often endless haggling and multiple visits to the free bar and buffets (generously funded by the unsuspecting taxpayer) interspersed with bouts of goodwill and enmity in which, as a delegate to those proceedings more than three decades ago, I had been an engaged participant.
The prompt for this reflection last week was the news that Emperors Palace had been chosen as the venue for the August summit of opposition parties first suggested in the ‘moon shot pact’ speech of DA leader John Steenhuisen.
Elaborating last weekend in an article in the Sunday Times, Steenhuisen wrote that the choice of venue to attempt achievement of a pre-election pact between the six participating parties was deliberate. “There can be little doubt”, he wrote, “that the pact conversation will be the most important political conversation in our country since 1994. As Codesa did, the conversation can lay the foundation for a political transition — this time away from decades of ANC misrule.”
Not to be pedantic, but for the fact referenced above, Codesa ended in failure and deadlock. Its successor forum — the blandly named multiparty negotiation forum — finished the task, but only after a lot of violence, compromising and nearly one year’s hiatus had both cleared the decks and concentrated the minds of the participating parties.
Still, on the general idea, Steenhuisen is undoubtedly correct. South Africa is careening down the scree slope of misgovernance or, in fact, little governance at all. Burning trucks on Van Reenen’s Pass, blue light bullies in the deputy president’s convoy assaulting motorists in broad daylight on the highway, collapsed infrastructure at every level and youth unemployment at 62.1% — the highest recorded anywhere in the world. The “construction mafia”, a perfect term for the pervasive lawlessness has, according to a recent report, extorted R63bn from 183 building projects since 2019. And this list hardly does justice to the almost complete absence of effective, or any, government leadership to tackle the immense array of problems and metastasising crises the same government and its policies have created.
Beyond the allure of history, the choice of a casino for the opposition talks next month is also rich in a range of possibilities: “a massive gamble”, “the house always wins”, “staking it all on black”, “hit the jackpot” and “go for broke” are just some of the options.
Four of the participating parties have some significant political real estate (DA, IFP, Action SA and Freedom Front Plus), two are very obscure (United Independent Movement and Spectrum National Party) and two can’t quite decide to attend or not (ACDP and Bosasa).
An old political hand once told me early on in my career, “the first law of politics is to be present”. That makes the decision, to date anyway, of political start-up party Rise Mzansi not to attend the talks a curious one. Songezo Zibi’s new movement has apparently attracted significant funding and some smart advisers. But to the wider public, it remains an unknown entity with a largely unknown bench of leaders. And while it might tick some imaginative boxes to suggest, as its leader does, that the movement is neither anti-ANC nor pro-opposition but in favour of a new politics for the country, can be, simultaneously, over-sophisticated and quite naive. SA is not France awaiting its Emmanuel Macron moment, not that he is much of a role model these days.
The outcomes of the August summit might indeed be modest or inconclusive. A set of common values and principles and a joint plan of action and some agreed priorities for a new coalition government or even a joint presidential candidate (that should be quite a bun fight given some of the egos around the table) are some of the suggestions mooted by an inside source.
However, it will be the appearance of co-operation and offering the disillusioned opposition voter, and especially those who have opted out of the political process entirely, the glimpse of an imagined post-ANC future. And its possible attainment. That in itself can create a following wind or political momentum to drive the opposition turnout in 2024 to new heights. And the first steps can pave the road to a consolidated opposition which can genuinely challenge for power. But it requires careful management and deft execution.
Thirty or so years back, when Emperors Palace was still the World Trade Centre and the original Codesa talks had collapsed, I was on a visit to Washington DC, filled with grave doubt about whether there would be a peaceful and successful resumption of the stalled constitutional negotiations. I was introduced to Dr Chester Crocker. His painstaking efforts as US assistant secretary for African affairs between 1981 and 1989 led the diplomacy that produced the treaties signed between Angola, South Africa and Cuba in 1989 which led to Namibian independence in March 1990, then seen as one of the most difficult strategic challenges in the world.
After I expressed my pessimism to Crocker on the same achievement being likely in South Africa, he counselled: “Get the process right and process can overcome the most difficult problems.”
He was entirely correct, as the resumed and more realistic talks which commenced months later at Kempton Park proved. Let’s hope that the same care and spirit on both process and outcome accompanies the new talks next month in Kempton Park. For the democratic health and continuity of the country, it’s a gamble worth taking.