Ed’s note: This post is a contribution from an overseas reader, Jeanine Wardman. Thank you for the intriguing view of South Africa that you present, Jeanine.
To President Zuma, and for my children
South Africa, I tell my children, dear Mr Zuma, is incurably complex and endlessly exciting, in one thrilling instant.
It is, I tell them often, a country in which the world comes together, quite literally – a kind of global microcosm or experiment, even; a place that persistently challenges, and that redefines notions of nationhood and politicises identity, perhaps like no other.
To those who call it home, it offers the opportunity to touch and be touched by lives vastly different to one’s own, every day anew. That, I tell them – its ravishing beauty and abundance of opportunity aside – is their most precious birthright.
My children know the country of their birth is in some ways the custodian of humanity’s greatest hopes and grandest dreams.
However, if there is one particular kind of agony I’d like to spare my offspring in the years following their coming of age, dear Mr Zuma, it is that of pondering their South Africanness – in the manner of the palpable torment contained in those immortal titles Cry The Beloved Country, Country of My Skull, My Traitor’s Heart and others. The source of agony has of course been eradicated, yes. And we have great South African freedom fighters such as yourself to praise and honour and forever thank for this. But will you concede, Mr Zuma, that South Africa is still lamented, still agonised over? At least by some, then? Many even.
Her political future is uncertain, her moral standing is tarnished, and her citizens are systematically traumatised by an all-consuming fear of violent, mindless crime. Perhaps even more despairingly, countless more are ravaged by squalor and hopelessness.
Yes, the country is in the throes, still, of redefining itself, of transition and transformation. Yes, decades of institutionalised discrimination can’t be without consequence. Yes, yes and another irrevocable, unconditional yes.
But where does all this rationalising, defeatism even, leave our children, Mr Zuma; or the Pakatis’ of Kayamandi; or the Reids’ of Constantia; or the Steenkamps’ of the Strand?
As a hopelessly patriotic South African, I cling fiercely to the hope that my children’s relationship with the place of their birth will, one day, be less fraught than mine; less ambivalent, or at least that their citizenship will be less confounding a label to bear.
I am telling my children that their soon-to-be president is a populist of Zulu ethnicity – a man of the people and of humble beginnings; an illustrious and brave liberation hero who sacrificed greatly for the very people he now serves, for the only country he’ll ever love.
And that you sing of machine guns and win hordes of their countrymen’s hearts and minds in so doing…
If only our country was less strange, Mr Zuma.
The media and other critics cast you as a man of dubious moral character and are doubtful history will have much to say to our children’s generation about your leadership and tenure, when the time comes. Others reserve judgment and reckon you to be a pragmatist, a realist even – approachable in a way your predecessor wasn’t – and that all is far from lost.
The polemicist Christopher Hitchens has made the considered observation that, to paraphrase, great leaders do not have to be above and beyond moral reproach in order to lead greatly or even teach lessons of vast moral magnitude, citing the example of Dr Martin Luther King, his problematic personal life, and his monumental role in the American civil rights movement.
What shall I say to my children of your intended legacy, Mr Zuma?
Will we, their guardians and those we entrust, make haste and effort and spare them the anguish, the exhaustion – of being from and of a place destined for greatness, but that forever fumbles in claiming such providence?
Will you, President Zuma, make this your gift to give?
Will their country meet our beautifully unburdened, always joyful children, when the time comes for them to be of age, as an eternal companion striding tall and gracefully alongside … ever-present, but never in need of carrying?
Will the beloved country ever not be cried over, Mr Zuma?
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