Now the dust has settled on the World Cup

Now that we have had some time to look back on South Africa’s success in pulling off the World Cup South Africans have to ask ourselves: what did we do right? This is important, because in its answer lies the hope that we will be able to do it right again. In this article, Executive Director of African democracy institute Idasa, Paul Graham, argues that it is in the years of struggle that South Africans learned to generate the “gees” that characterised this event – and these are lessons to share with the world. Do you think he’s got a point – join the debate here.

Now that the tourists have returned home, schools have reopened and daily life has been restored, South Africa – indeed the world – is asking inevitable questions about the miracle that was the South African World Cup. Now that the gloating over the Afro-pessimists who predicted disaster has lost momentum, and the congratulations have all been made, we are left to puzzle over the success that could have been a spectacular failure; South Africans must now ask ourselves: what did we do right? And this is an important question because in its answer lies the hope that we will be able to do it right again.

We have done it before. We produced a miracle in 1994. When the white president of apartheid South Africa in February 1990 announced the first steps towards the negotiation process, he was not capitulating to a few prisoners on Robben Island, or a few hundred thousand marching citizens, or to a defiant but suffering population, or even to a brave but still outgunned Umkhonto we Sizwe and an articulate and organised African National Congress in exile. He was, finally, capitulating to the world. And the world celebrated.

Apartheid had tugged deeply at the heart of the world, and citizens, their governments and the international institutions that they constructed found common cause across even more barriers than they had been willing or able to cross during war, disease and famine.

Now the world has joined us again in celebration. To understand this we should consider the ties that bound South Africa to the world and the world to South Africa.

Contact between humans made diverse by millennia of migratory separation had been taking place in Africa and between Africans and Europeans in Europe over the years. An epoch of misunderstanding, fear and violence that began when Bartolomeu Diaz first rounded the stormy Cape and found the sweet water of Mossel Bay, put South Africa at the centre of so many of the faultlines of the world. The narrative of slavery, conquest, colonialism, greed and war that followed merely ensured that the bonds coiled ever tighter.

Resistance to apartheid and the development of an alternative vision, begun prior to 1948, was driven through the early 20th century by a remarkable African intelligentsia in alliance with black working class organisations and a communist party. For 40 years, the struggle continued – supported by an increasing number of citizens and states across the world.

After 1994, the unresolved problems of the world brought political actors to South Africa to watch, to learn and to touch the robe of Mandela.

Hope of course emerges from Pandora’s urn only after the flight of human ills and cares. And the very quality that made South Africa the testing ground for humanity made it the place in which hopes could be dashed. Now, years after the first post-apartheid elections, South Africans are very aware of the failings of their state and of their government. Local discontent, often slipping into violence directed against state institutions or locally elected representatives, occurs regularly and is widespread. The terrible violent response to foreigners of African origin residing in South Africa that first erupted in May 2008 may also come to be seen as a symbol of the failures of the democratic state.

Does this mean that the world should give up on the South African experiment or that South Africans should give up on trying to be a rainbow nation – a country refracting the light of hope after the storms of the past?

The success of the world cup suggests no; it reminds us all that there are many things about the country that have gone right, and many others that are redeemable. Perhaps the world joined us for a month-long party to celebrate just that; that South Africa as a testing ground for a new global humanity proved itself yet again.

Idasa recently published a booklet entitled “What South Africa Does the World Need?” Perhaps the world came, not only to watch football, but to share in what lessons this country has to offer. In demonstrating to the world that we could do it, South African has proved again that is has at least some part of the formula right.

This country has a large, active and organised civil society and a private media which prides itself on its independence. It has a large academic community that is finding a public voice after some years of parochialism.

The Constitution has been tested and found to be an instrument capable of protecting and promoting the interests of people over their government and retaining the power which they originally acquired and which the Constitution confirmed.

South Africans retain an ability to “get organised”, whether for a party, a funeral, a protest or a community clean-up. This ability and willingness to get together and make a plan has been institutionalised in a number of laws, so that whether implementation is of sufficient quality to meet our high expectations or not, the society is permeated by imperatives and opportunities for participation. Ward committees, community police forums, budget forums, local economic development forums, HIV/AIDS councils, the National Economic Development and Labour Council, environment impact assessment processes and many other similar public spaces test the mettle of citizens, elected representatives and civil servants. It is easy to be cynical about these invited spaces, and South Africans are perfectly capable of this cynicism without assistance from external critics, but many countries would love the opportunity to inhabit even a part of this space.

South Africans have a legal environment which enables them to act in concert in the interstices between the state and commerce. South Africans were early adopters of new technologies – mobile phones, email, the internet – and these have been used for organising. And behind this electronic world can still be found the savings clubs, entertainment groups, funeral societies, cultural gatherings, community associations, and other voluntary associations that weave the society together with many invisible threads and occasionally connect with one another in ways which develop public wealth and enrich public policy.

Of course, there are also places in South Africa where these organisations do not weave the society together and places in which they seem to be absent or at odds with one another, but South Africa does seem to resist a public discourse of factionalism and exclusion, even if in some contexts it acts differently from the words it speaks.

There is, therefore, some evidence that South Africa has a contribution to make to a world in which all too often people are at the mercy of the state, driven to limited and isolated private lives, and where space for public activity is marginalised to those forms of activity that are of little public consequence.

South Africa’s success will have repercussions for the region in which it is located – providing some example of what is possible, but more importantly allowing it to act as the ballast on which the rest of the region can remain upright and afloat.

This success will have implications for the world because it will have been achieved in the face of many obstacles which face other countries – uneven development, inequality, pockets of extreme poverty and apparent linguistic, religious, ethnic, race and class heterogeneity.

What we saw during the world cup demonstrated to the world that it is possible to achieve a rights-based democratic country out of the ruins of authoritarianism, and a means of doing democracy which empowers ordinary citizens.

A successful South Africa becomes one among many assets of the international community, acting in its own interests out of a culture of human rights and democracy, representing not merely its elites but its people and therefore being on the right side of history more often than not, adding its weight and wisdom to the dilemmas of the future.

This is an adapted extract from “What South Africa Does the World Need”, published by African democracy institute Idasa. Paul Graham is Idasa’s Executive Director.

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