In 2004, British playwright Michael Frayn’s award-winning play Democracy achieved both critical and commercial success, despite its seemingly dull premise: German politics in the 1970s.

I watched the performance in London at the time, utterly mesmerised as the play toggled between two themes. First, the highly charged political drama — the fall of left-wing West German chancellor Willy Brandt and the complexity of coalition politics and high treason in the chancellor’s office.

Second, the interplay between the political and the personal. The contradictions of Brandt’s character and personality and his role as a key resurrector of German democracy after 1945, and his chief aide, Gunter Guillaume, who was revealed to be an East German spy.

It was in his programme notes that Frayn revealed what attracted him to write the drama: “The only part of German history that seemed to arouse much interest in the British is the Nazi period.” Yet, as he both noted and then dramatised, what compelled him was “the amazing recovery of Germany after the Second World War … Almost every city was in ruins, and the country was morally shattered. The Nazis had invaded every aspect of German social life, every political and religious institution. The judicial system was totally corrupted. Yet somehow Germany managed to reconstruct a very, moderate, stable society.”

This achievement — against such a fraught backdrop — is the political heartland of Frayn’s play and proved to be every bit as dramatic as the resignation of Brandt — the first left-wing chancellor of Germany since Adolf Hitler.

Just how stability and moderation endure in the now unified Germany, the economic powerhouse by far of Europe, was revealed last week as new Chancellor-elect Olaf Scholtz unveiled his 177-page coalition agreement, negotiated over two months and in conditions of confidentiality — binding together the orthodox Left (his SPD party), the environmental Left (The Greens) and the liberal free marketeers (the FDP). The so-called “traffic light coalition” (reflecting the green, amber and red colours of the parties) is set to govern the country for the next four years.

However, our broken and malfunctioning state revels in the commemoration of significant milestones on the road to democracy and afterwards. This Friday, December 10, offers another occasion for flummery of self-congratulation and obligatory obeisance — the 25th anniversary of our constitution. Just how many of our unemployed, sick, and despairing populace will join the revelry must be open to doubt.

This stands in the deepest contrast to the actual event itself back in December 1996. Like a sepia-tinged photograph from the attic of happier times, I recall vividly the dust and grit that swirled into the summer air as a large SA Air Force helicopter settled on the parched arena of Sharpeville’s George Thabi Stadium to deplane its famous passenger — president Nelson Mandela. Sharpeville, of course, was the locale of the anti-pass law demonstration that resulted in the police shooting of 69 black people. That event galvanised and radicalised the mass resistance to the apartheid order, which long and uneven struggle in turn resulted in Mandela’s election as president some 36 years later.

The date itself was as evocative as the place chosen for Mandela to ink his signature on the country’s founding document, the democratic constitution. December 10 is International Human Rights Day — itself a commemoration of the adoption of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted on that day by the General Assembly in 1948 (ironically the year in SA when the National Party swept to power).

Mandela, Sharpeville, Human Rights Day, a brave new constitution for a more hopeful future — few dramas seemed to have such a happy ending. But in the intervening 25 years, we now realise it was but a way station on the road, and the descent since has, a few upward blips to the contrary, been vertiginous.

This week, in the lead-up to the 25th anniversary, there is no shortage of reminders of how far we have strayed from the path set fair by Mandela on that magnificent summer day in Sharpeville in 1996.

Parliament is busy unstitching the quilt woven into the constitutional fabric around property rights; our national police commissioner was revealed in public hearings  to be both incompetent and asleep at the switch during the riots and looting that wrecked KwaZulu-Natal during July with the fearsome violence. His police force was enthusiastic about arresting thousands of surfers and shoppers during the lockdown in 2020, but stood idly by as more than 300 people were killed and billions of rand in property and assets were torched in full-scale plunder and lawlessness, mid-2021.

There has been an even more alarming development of consequence for the much-promised, never-sighted action on state capture. The looting larceny of the Jacob Zuma locust years saw the taxpayer robbed of about R1-trillion of state assets. The person handpicked by President Cyril Ramaphosa to head the investigative arm of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Hermione Cronje, has quit her post after less than three years and not managing to hold a single corrupter to account. Was it shrunken budgets, frustrations with her boss, internal sabotage, or a hands-off-ANC-figures command she received? We do not know the real story, but none of the narratives, and not a single successful prosecution, tell their own sorry tale.

Meanwhile, one of the more controversial features of our constitution is the enormous concentration of powers in the office and person of the president. Under Zuma, these were recklessly and feloniously abused. By contrast and in the teeth of a new wave of virulent coronavirus infections, against which vaccinations offer reduced mortality and hospital loads, Ramaphosa flails and fails on vaccination mandates despite the national health emergency,.

Constitutional lawyer advocate Ben Winks wrote that the “constitution commands compulsory vaccinations for citizens who wish to access workplaces, public events, public transport and public facilities”. He correctly reasons that the state is commanded by the constitution — in which Ramaphosa played a major role in drafting — “to take positive steps to protect, promote and fulfil the rights” of citizens from life-threatening diseases. If the anti-vaxxers want to stay unjabbed, fine, but they must not harm others in the exercise of their rights and freedoms.

Ramaphosa, in one of his endless “family meetings”, framed the same question but declined to answer it. Instead, he announced the appointment of yet another “task team” and on Monday advised journalists, according to reports, that on the issue of vaccine mandates, he is “leaving it to the nation to discuss”.

Our national story has moved from triumph to tragedy, and now to farce or pantomime. Grim relief of a sort for the festive season. Happy holidays.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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