Picture: 123RF/Douw De Jager
Picture: 123RF/Douw De Jager

Are we, South Africans, as special as we like to think we are? We certainly thought so, back in the mid-1990s, when the whole world worshipped our secular deity, Nelson Mandela, and heaped praise on us for the "miracle" of our 1994 elections.

But that notion has been thoroughly debunked over the past 25 years, as we followed the trajectory of a failing transition — single-party dominance, centralisation of power, cronyism, corruption, and the captured, criminal state (rationalised by the overriding imperative of "racial transformation").

Despite this, I think it is time to revive the notion of SA exceptionalism, not as a "given", but as a goal for which to strive; not as magical thinking, but as a spur to understand what is required to succeed.

What would success look like? For me, it is a peaceful, prosperous country, under the rule of law, with a capable state, underpinned by a culture of accountability. A country in which people are judged by "the content of their character, not the colour of their skin".

Is that so exceptional?

In contemporary politics, unfortunately, it is — especially in countries as complex and divided as our own. The world today is increasingly dominated by two major political trends: on the right there is growing racial chauvinism and ethnic nationalism; on the left there is the Marxist revisionism that understands oppression as a function of biological identity.

Mobilising the moderate centre of politics in this environment is an exceptionally difficult task, bucking the international trend on both the left and the right.

It has become trite to hear people say we cannot achieve the goal of inclusive nonracialism unless we first address the racial disparities of the past.

I have reached a different conclusion: we will be unable to undertake the crucial work of addressing past injustices unless nonracialism is our starting point, not a distant, elusive goal. We need the very best people, whatever their race, to lead this effort. They must be judged by their capabilities, commitment, and the content of their character — not the colour of their skin. Without this starting point we will never achieve the economic growth we require to reduce unemployment; nor the capable, corruption-free state on which society (especially the poor) depends.

Making racial transformation the country’s overriding priority, and reserving the role of leading the transition to people of a specific race only, has enabled a small group of politically powerful people to abuse racial redress as a tool for patronage and self-enrichment, corruption and criminalisation. Whatever good intentions this policy may have started with, it has led us to the mess we are in. Eskom is a prime example.

This is not a reflection, in any way, of the capabilities of any race group. It is merely a description of the perversion that inevitably occurs when the politically powerful apply a policy of racial preferencing.

Despite our experience of state capture over the past decade, it is still almost sacrilegious to suggest that a nonracial meritocracy is essential to overcome the injustices of the past. Yet, unless this is the starting point, the goal of prosperity and inclusion will remain elusive, as we slip into the deep hole of a failing state, a collapsing economy and growing unemployment.

The stark question is: can we still play an international role as standard-bearers for a common, inclusive, open society?

I am less optimistic now than I once was, but I still strongly believe it is an achievable goal, and certainly worth fighting for.

I remember former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, back in 2010, gently implying that I might be wasting my time.

He was visiting Cape Town to attend Soccer World Cup matches, and took the opportunity to pop into my office to discuss SA politics. I was honoured that he had requested this meeting, and wondered why.

He went straight to the point: he had always believed that achieving an inclusive democracy, based on values, principles and policies, would be impossible in any state in Africa due to the fact that the borders, carved out in the European "scramble for Africa" during the late 19th century, took no heed of ethnic demographics. Seeking to build a common nationhood out of disparate groups would remain an elusive quest. The notion of people mobilising around ideas and values, rather than ethnicity and race, seemed like a nonstarter in our context. And the clash between traditional cultures and those of a constitutional democracy was simply too stark.

He correctly predicted that even developed democracies would increasingly battle to keep alive the idea of nonracial, multicultural inclusion in the decade ahead.

What was the DA doing, he asked, that we were managing to buck this trend? After all, we had not only established ourselves as the official opposition (winning far more votes than race-based ethnic parties) but we were actually winning elections. What made this possible?

I spoke about SA’s struggle history of nonracialism against apartheid; I spoke about the relative autonomy of our economy in relation to the state; I spoke about our constitution, the institutions of accountability, our independent judiciary and our free press. I spoke about our history of religious tolerance.

Those were the halcyon days before the Jacob Zuma-era "state capture" project (disguised by the "imperative" of racial transformation) tried to bring down these pillars of a free society.

The question now is: can we come back from the brink? If the answer is yes, we will certainly be pretty exceptional. The recent high court judgment that Zuma must indeed face corruption charges in court is a step in the right direction.

But we cannot underestimate the extent of the challenge we face in building a capable state and establishing the rule of law. Without these two attributes we will join the scores of countries that attempted the transition to democracy, but failed.

I believe we have what it takes to avoid this. As the old saying goes: it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

There are enough people, of all races and cultures, with enough insight and courage, to take on the challenge. And there is still enough institutional infrastructure to make progress possible.

Success is certainly not a foregone conclusion. But the fact that there are enough people who still deeply believe we can do it, is what I call SA exceptionalism.

Zille is a former DA leader and mayor of Cape Town; she is the newly elected federal council chair of the DA

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