Predictably, there have been few real surprises emerging from last week’s election.
What has surprised many though has been the timbre of international reactions. Ranging from rank indifference to stereotypically ignorant responses to the blase business-as-usual expectations about the Dark Continent, reactions in the major media worldwide have reflected poorly on how the rest of the world perceives South Africa — let alone the cultural cobweb that is our political scenario.
That international perceptions of South Africa have worsened in the past three years is indisputable. Despite South Africa being consistently “in the news” in one way or another, from sports pages to op-ed features to occasional economic analyses, the bad news is what has captured the headlines. This isn’t because Britons, Belgians, Germans or Americans only want to read the bad news. It has been a combination of bad editorial decisions in South Africa and abroad, mired in archaic newsroom management paradigms, and the pathetic job South Africa has done of selling itself.
Looking to the latter first — despite the existence of the International Marketing Council and a ragtag gaggle of attempts to project South Africa as a post-apartheid miracle and a world player, the rest of the world basically couldn’t give a shit. Before 1994 South Africa yearned for international recognition, but languished in a cesspit of international opprobrium.
After 1994, and with the Mandela miracle in the vanguard, we were catapulted to the status of an international miracle. The journey from zero to hero was a national version of dowdy Scotswoman Susan Boyle’s sensational success on Britain’s Got Talent. SA was “the little country that could” and did!
Since then we have squandered our global stature and celebrity in a seemingly endless parade of spectacular blunders from HIV/Aids, to unwillingness to deal with crime, to government corruption, to colour-blind financial and intellectual impoverishment to the unforgivable fuck-up of Zimbabwe. From superstardom, we crashed to some vague point just short of ignominy. We were Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison rolled into one, until even our staunchest supporters began to lose faith that we’d ever make it out of the Betty Ford Clinic.
Every ordinary American, native and newcomer alike, I’ve met in the past three months knows where South Africa is geographically, but from a perceptual point of view we’re merely skulking in the shadow of Zimbabwe, which in turn is the epitome of every African basket case and the ultimate destination for yet more reluctant billions in development aid.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that South Africa is seen as the kid brother the big boys and girls have to drag with on dates. With the Ineffectual Intellectual at its head and a chaotic potpourri of puff-shouldered parliamentarians trailing like a foul cloud behind him, South Africa seemed to take it for granted that we were somehow entitled to international adulation forever and ever.
Against this backdrop, the shabby marketing efforts so far are little more than the visible expression of that ingrained attitude of entitlement to respect since 1994. That’s why the majority of our citizens — and specifically the ANC/Cosatu/SACP support base — actually believe their own hype.
South Africa and what goes on there is background noise — which is a double-headed knobkierie, working to the country’s benefit whenever Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi or Gwede Mantashe swallow both feet, but working against us when we try to put on the XXXL suit of a world player (recall how small and out-of-place Motlanthe looked at the G20 Summit in London?).
Writers, myself included, have been saying for most of this century: respect, like trust, is something to be earned.
Yet none of this fully explains the tepid-to-stupid media treatment of last week’s ballot-box bun fight. Okay, so the outcome was pretty predictable. Okay, so the developed world has little stomach for polygamists who prance about like 19th century colonial sideshow freaks instead of serious political leaders. Okay, so there are other menacing attention grabbers out there such as Somali pirates, the Taliban in Pakistan, North Korea’s misfiring missiles and, of course, the global economic meltdown.
But even so, the grab bag of editorial leaders and op-ed pieces — with the exception of one or two media (all print) — have shown about as much insight as a traffic light. Ever since The Economist set the trend in the late 1970s of employing scientists, doctors, theologians and artists who could write (rather than writers interested in science, medicine, religion or the arts), I have been sceptical about foreign correspondents. The idea of Americans based in Jo’burg writing about South Africa has felt less comfortable than the notion of a South African writing about his or her country for an American audience.
Here in Washington DC, I have yet to find a real challenge to that view, no matter whether the medium is TV, radio, print or the internet. As an example, CNN here presents exceptional medical reporting with two doctors working for it full time (I just wish they would show the English language the same degree of respect!), and most of the major newspapers have similarly qualified religion reporters, legal writers and science journalists.
So I suppose it should not surprise me that from Wall Street to Fleet Street, media opinion writers have demonstrated serious misunderstanding of the nuances of African politics which, together with archaic mindsets, add nothing to either the global or domestic debate around South Africa.
And that debate is not only about South Africa and the awkward bumbling shenanigans of the ANC, DA and Cope. The debate is also about the future of sub-Saharan Africa, continental stability and whether the rest of the planet is doomed to drag an immature brat of a continent around forever and a day, whether that brat is just going to get strip-mined and environmentally raped into oblivion or whether it is going to do some real growing up.
The ultimate mocking irony of it all is that that debate now falls under the chairmanship of Jacob Zuma — a caricature of an African political leader overtly meeting every criterion for The Kid Least Likely To Succeed.
The stark differences between the outcome of last week’s polls and the results of the deluge of internet surveys on whether anyone, even those within his own party, can or should TRUST the man who has set new benchmarks in dodging having to come clean are statistically identical — almost two-thirds of the voters who turned out last week gave Machinegun Jake the thumbs up, and since then almost two-thirds of those surveyed on a dozen or more websites gave him the thumbs down.
While I’m convinced the ebony-and-ivory distinctions tell us more about who has internet access and who does not — the old have versus have-not dichotomy writ in binary code — maybe the sub-headline of The Washington Post’s editorial on the weekend merits some consideration. “South Africa’s new president could strengthen his country’s liberal democracy — or destroy it.”
In the next round of Britain’s Got Talent, Susan Boyle will have to show the world she’s more than a one-hit wonder, that she is worthy of the dream she’s dreaming. Paul Potts did it before and went all the way to the top. Now Zuma will have to show us all very, very quickly that he can be trusted and that his repertoire contains more than silly songs, flip-flop rhetoric and autocratic leanings.
Like respect, JZ, trust is something that must be earned. It’s up to you to show us all we’re worthy of the dream we’re dreaming.