It Ain’t Over till It’s Over

South Africans aren’t done yet.

Wayde van Niekerk

Four years ago, I wrote the piece below for the Mercury, a daily newspaper in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

It was written in the afterglow of Chad le Clos’s defeat of Michael Phelps to win his first Olympic gold, and Ernie Els’s stirring come-from-behind victory in golf’s British Open.

Re-reading this, after the inspirational performances of the likes of Wayde van Niekerk, Caster Semenya, Sunette Viljoen, Luvo Manyonga, and Cameron van der Burgh at the Rio Olympics, the note it sounds still rings true.

Beneath all the problems of South Africa, the mismanagement of state bodies (including the shambolic Athletics South Africa among others), and the corruption, our country is not down and out. We keep picking ourselves up off the canvas.

The recent election results show people still want to fight for their country. Olympic sport is just sport, yes, but the love for country it shows is real and echoes beyond the arena.

That echo is a reminder that beyond the headlines and the politics, the dream is still alive.

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Making Our Own Success

South Africans have always been intensely moved by sporting success.

This was exemplified in the opening years of our new democracy when our unlikely victories in the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the 1996 African Cup of Nations seemed to be providential moments that sealed the New South Africa with a glowing stamp of approval.

Perhaps it is a little bit ridiculous of us to feel this way about sport, but neither South African fans nor sportsmen and women can seem to help it.

When Ernie Els came from nowhere to win the British Open last month, he couldn’t help but acknowledge Madiba’s role in reconciliation; and when Chad le Clos similarly completed a startling comeback in his butterfly victory, his patriotism was visibly evident as he openly wept during the national anthem.

These unique responses pose a question – why does sporting success immediately fill us with love for our country?

One could argue that it signals that no matter how greatly South Africans may feel let down by their government, they are able to separate that despondency from a belief in the country itself.

In general, South Africans are thankfully able to draw upon a national pride that goes beyond government.

This in itself is deeply ironic given the ANC’s massive attempt (since Mandela’s fiery farewell speech at the 1999 Mafikeng conference) to completely intertwine themselves with first the state and then the country as a whole.

Even after our Olympic golds, we had Blade Nzimande (who worryingly seems to be the new godfather of government policy) exploiting the moment in order to effect a strange defence of government performance in the textbook saga.

What figures like Nzimande don’t seem to understand is that South African success is not always synonymous with government success. There is a whole chunk of South African activity that thankfully takes place outside the ambit of party ‘discipline’.

And when Nzimande speaks like that, he betrays a line of thought that is strangling our nation.

The thinking goes that government is the saviour of its people, and that government knows best how to solve our problems and achieve success.

This is why Nzimande’s proposal to solve the textbook saga is to increase government control over education. Strangely enough, many education activists seem to agree with him.

This bizarre phenomenon is global too.

Europeans are witnessing an unprecedented loss of national sovereignty as unelected bureaucrats run economic policy.

In the US, Barack Obama is increasing government at a massive rate in order to attempt economic growth.

And back at home, the ANC is attempting to roll out a Chinese-inspired new wave of state capitalism.

Even radicals like the Occupy protestors of London and New York want increased government control – not seemingly cognisant of the revolving doors between high finance and government.

As the modern welfare state crumbles under the weight of deficits, unemployment, and stagnant markets, there seems to be a global consensus for even bigger governments to manage the chaos of this decline.

This is a massive mistake and it represents a misdiagnosis of our problems and a lack of faith and hope in everyday people – perfectly expressed by Nzimande’s weird attempt to take credit for our swimmers.

If stable and prosperous nation states are to emerge from these tough times, it is necessary that whole populations, working in freedom and by their own initiative, take back responsibility for generating wealth, educating children, and caring for the sick.

Bloated governments, susceptible to corruption, can no longer crowd out private enterprise and civil society and eat up the wealth of nations. Instead, they must be radically cut back because they are no longer sustainable.

Why is it that schools in Limpopo must rely on crony service providers, hired by corrupt centralised bureaucrats, for their textbooks? Governing bodies should have the power and capital to buy their own textbooks.

Maybe they will fail like the government, but at least they will be directly accountable to parents. At least then schools would have the power of success in their own hands.

I think the reason so many South Africans take pride in our sportsmen and women is that they remind us that there is so much excellence in our country. We have so many great and enterprising people.

At the moment this excellence is being strangled by political elites who insist they are the divine solution to all our problems. That is why they tell us they will rule until Jesus returns.

They are wrong.

The ANC’s dream of ‘democratic revolution’ is broken – but the South African dream is not.

We need our ruling class to let go of our country. It is only then that she will be able to fly.