Our Country Is Burning – But The Fire Can Cleanse Us

A real leader would use the present crisis to save both the country and the ANC.

In the Dickens classic, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, the protagonist ends the novel by sacrificing his life for the husband of his one true love, his rival in essence.

Before he dies, this protagonist, Sydney Carton, says the following:

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy…

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The genius of the novel is that Dickens lets nobody off the hook – both the regime of pre-revolutionary France and the revolutionary leaders have blood on their hands.

But redemption comes from somebody who sees through the cycle of violence and absorbs it.

For us in post-apartheid South Africa, this redemption need not be merely poetic. It can, and must, be practical too.

A real leader would look at this burning country and see the obvious: we need a new deal between citizens, government, business, labour, education and all the other myriad stakeholders who make up a country.

This leader would call a new Codesa (the talks that led to the 1994 elections and the new constitution) that would thrash out a new way for government to collect and spend tax, a new way for it to prioritise services, cut out corruption, and empower the poor – all before we become a permanent protest state.

There are some obvious ideas that come to mind – which by no means form an exhaustive list:

1. Sort out the fees issue once for all by making it affordable for worthy applicants (perhaps by adding a one percent tax to all future graduates), and then clean up the rotten FET institutions and make them into proper trade and apprenticeship schools. Then END the protests – by force if necessary.

2. Create a proper framework and alliance between business, labour, and the unemployed to create wealth and jobs and skills training. BEE should be broad-based, focusing on capitalising the poor with both equity and skills.

3. Have a solid infrastructure plan to create reliable public transport, electricity and water supply.

4. Put the best people in charge of education and empower leaders to hire and fire good or bad principals and good or bad teachers.

5. Reform police and criminal justice. We need more well-trained policemen urgently.

The existent National Development Plan, which already has broad support, could be the framework for such talks and solution crafting.

But, importantly, this hypothetical leader would have to be strong, as well as flexible and magnanimous (literal translation: ‘great in soul’), in getting people around the table, negotiating with each other in good faith, and then sticking to the agreed plan.

Even before solutions and a clear plan were arrived at, the whole narrative around our country would shift. You would see investment happening again almost immediately. The rand would improve.

And then, once the talks are over, this leader would corral his own party into line, he would fire people who stood in the way of the consensus, even at great political cost, and he would reach out to opponents and engender a new sense of patriotism, the likes of which has not been seen since the decline of Madiba. The ANC would be reformed in the process – it would become a political party in service of the nation, and no longer a self-defining movement.

But is there such a leader in our land?

Sadly, I’m reminded of a chilling passage in one the prophets of the Old Testament, Ezekiel:

“And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none.”

We need to keep looking.