Get thee to a literary festival!

If you want to get into a really thoughtful and provocative conversation about politics and the state of the nation, then you’d better get yourself to the nearest literary festival, the spaces of choice for middle-class South Africans to debate (with good coffee, a sip of wine and usually marvellous views) their truly ingewikkeld society.

On Human Rights Day two colleagues and I drove a group of final-year writing and editing students from Rhodes University down to Knysna to spend a long weekend thinking about writing the real issues and meeting their authors.

We left in the dark from Grahamstown and pulled up in bright, sparkling midday light flashing off the Knysna lagoon just in time for our first session: Frank Chikane telling us “what could not be said” when he was this country’s chief civil servant (DG in the president’s office) and working for Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe and, very briefly, Zuma.

Twenty years of democracy will induce reflection and Chikane was in the mood for some: he spoke about how the ANC went into power “with the best – extraordinary – intentions, with a common objective, to do good, with the priority of working for the people”. He then detailed the “mistakes” made since and the realities which tripped up the cadres:frank

·         The contradictions of our society are so deep.

·         Comrades are not angels.

·         The criminal syndicates saw an opportunity in SA’s change of government and were extremely nimble in adapting to corrupting the new people in power.

·         We thought it was an innocent thing to run government: it’s complex, complex.

·         People who have been in the trenches protect each other. They defend each other no matter how wrong they are. They behave as though they are still in a war, they close their eyes to straight forward corruption.

·         The world is not innocent, not honest (this comment about dealings with the US over chemical weapons in Iraq).

Chikane has published two books in the last two years, the first Eight Days in September tells the story of Mbeki’s “recall” as president by the ANC (an unconstitutional move as he should have been removed from the position by parliament and not the party). The second Things that could not be Said: from A(ids) to Z(imbabwe) promises to reveal what he could not while in the president’s office. To publicise his books Chikane has travelled South Africa meeting South Africans, “I’ve listened to poor and rich. During this second round I’ve seen a radical change… it used to be white people who were unhappy, but now black people too lament, something is wrong and there’s no answer.”

Chikane’s assessment of our state is that we are in a collective nightmare: we “know there’s a problem, a threat, a danger, we can’t run, we can’t scream, we can’t wave”. Now that he’s no longer in politics and has returned to being an ordinary member of the ANC in a local branch and pastor of the AFM church in Naledi, Soweto, he feels he can start doing something both within the party and more generally to change the situation. He has been telling his comrades that the ANC has taken “an angle of deviation from its intentions” and needs to change its trajectory. He is also starting what he calls the “Dream project” for South Africans “bold enough to take a stand… against the corrupting of the law”. As an example he told us that when he was overseeing Mbeki’s removal form the presidency, he resorted to the standard regulations to insist that the house the Mbekis were preparing to buy not cost the taxpayer huge amounts to make secure. His take on Nkandla and the vast spending on that homestead is that civil servants within government were not prepared to enforce the existing rules because they were currying favour with the ANC leadership.

By contrast, Max du Preez in the next session was extremely upbeat. He’s just published A Rumour of Spring and while he’s still equivocating (will South Africa’s spring be a fresh, green one full of new promise, or an Arab Spring with all its complexities?) he’s also clear about how robust he feels our democracy to be. “I feel a lot of hope since the Thuli Madonsela report. A free media exposed the President. A state institution nailed him. You cannot shut up the press and fire the public prosecutor. Don’t underestimate the strength and value of an open society; open societies seldom fail. Zuma is bad and the government is rotten, but South Africa is not a failed state or a banana republic.”

But Vusi Pikoli, who used to be our National Director of Public Prosecutions, was more sober. He feels that we have to work hard to “respect, promote and protect the Chapter 9 institutions”. He’s also extremely worried about “executive interference” and the fact that parliament operates as a “rubber stamp of the executive”. He also feels that the ANC “must reclaim moral authority”.

In response to questions by Ivo Vegter (the session moderator) Du Preez said yes he agreed the “political temperature was very high” but that he “couldn’t see the crisis getting deeper, structurally South Africa is too strong”. But Pikoli used the example of the loss of government by Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as an example of how the “gains of the revolution can be lost”. Although, he went on to say, the Sandinistas had then learnt how to be an opposition and then to get back into power.

It’s a fairly surreal experience having these kinds of conversations in the surroundings that the Knysna literal festival uses (golf estates set high above the ocean in newly-planted indigenous gardens) and in the company of mainly white Southern Cape residents mostly from book clubs (a few of the questions posed to these authors often made one wonder just what planet the person had been on for the last 20 years).

But there’s something about the genteel, lounge-like atmosphere that makes these commentators and watchers of the national state confessional and open in a way they’re not when faced with a microphone or a TV camera.

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