State of the Nation: South Africa and Egypt

By Shafiq Morton – Cape Town

It has been many years since I last attended the State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa. And on this sultry February afternoon as I arrived for media accreditation, the usual blustery Cape Doctor – a seasonal trade wind – had backed off from blowing everything away.

As the sun dimmed on a striking Cape Town summer evening, ostrich feathers, hats and hairstyles remained in place. And whilst some of the expensive outfits I saw could have paid for a Reconstruction and Development Programme house, I was told it was a subdued fashion year.

Of course, the South African State of the Nation address has always been about pomp and pageant – a ceremonial first day for our parliamentarians. It is a curious tableau of the colonial and the indigenous.

Stiff soldiers and Scottish bagpipes are followed by a loose-limbed, ululating Xhosa praise singer in skins. Four air-force jets fly in formation overhead as a 21-gun salute booms. Pigeons scatter overhead as the President, escorted by the Speaker, enters the House.

I am told this whole ceremony has cost Parliament R6 million (about 800,000 US dollars). It sounds like a lot of money, and I ask myself: is this razzmatazz worth it?

President Zuma takes the podium and begins his address. Without being too specific, he concentrates on jobs and the economy – big issues here. Delivery is the big “if”, but he is at least focusing on our needs.

Yes, I think, after listening to him for a while – this parliamentary razzmatazz is worth it.

It is our parliament, and these are the people we voted into power. Things may be far from perfect, but in South Africa we do have the luxury of a functioning Constitution and an applicable Bill of Rights.

In South Africa I can criticise the President, and he can’t send goons to arrest me. I can talk my own language; I can embrace my own culture. I have freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of worship. I have the creative liberty to write this article – unburdened by the fear of censorship.

As the Parliamentary Assembly spills on to the Stalplein after the State of the Nation address, our team chases down politicians and party officials for comment. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, Cabinet Ministers Tina Joemat-Peterson, Ntathi Mthwetha and Ebrahim Patel face up to the media.

Opposition figures have their say too. Chief Buthelezi, one of the last surviving apartheid relics in public life, shuffles into a television studio.

Without getting too clichéd, I realise that our State of the Nation address, and the opening of Parliament in Cape Town, are the unlocking of the nation’s Constitutional door. That’s something to celebrate. We have a credible political edifice.

As journalists we have been able to engage our leaders, and men in uniforms have not beaten us with sticks for trying to do so.

Whilst I’m monitoring all of this, Tahrir Square in Cairo is heading for its 17th night of protest. On the flickering screen of a TV monitor in our outside broadcast van, one of Africa’s most extraordinary revolutions is at a critical stage. The tweets are coming in fast that President Hosni Mubarak might step down.

Later that night, Mubarak appears on state television. I see a sneering, supercilious octogenarian with dyed hair. This is not the stiff-backed, iron-fisted Mubarak I know. He resorts to ingratiating arrogance, calling a people he’d ruthlessly bullied for 30 years his “children”.

When he says he won’t be dictated to on when he should go, the crowd roars with anger. I can’t help but be reminded of former President PW Botha, a particularly nasty man known as the “crocodile” during the halcyon days of apartheid.

Facing international opprobrium and a nationwide uprising, the South African apartheid leader took to the nation’s TV screens in August 1985. He pontificated, wagged his imperial finger, and refused to implement the meaningful reform everyone expected of him.

That particular performance (Botha never delivered speeches) became known as the “Rubicon Address”. Four years later he was forced out of office by FW de Klerk who released Nelson Mandela. Like Mubarak, Botha’s notions of self-importance had been highly over-rated.

But as I sat watching Al-Jazeera, I realised that while the Egyptian uprising had its own distinct terms and merits, there were critical resonances with the South African experience.

This is because during apartheid, like in Mubarak’s Egypt, we did not have a free media. We did not have an independent judiciary. Our state organs were not up to scrutiny, and nor was Parliament accountable, or responsive, to the majority of the population.

And unlike today, to have an idea about the destiny of your country was against the law. To question existing values could mean detention without trial, house arrest, interrogation, torture and even extra-judicial death.

But the worst effects of apartheid, and Mubarak’s Egypt, was the stifling of the human spirit. The apartheid of the mind can be as devastating as a riot policeman’s nightstick crunching into your skull. When opportunity, ideas and creativity become restricted, a society starts to fester on its edges, and infect the centre.

In South Africa we resorted to crime and violence, and in Egypt it fostered Islamic extremism. These are debilitating social diseases that are difficult to cure unless their causes are identified and understood.

For Egypt, a country of 80 million with one-quarter of its people living below the poverty line, the challenges are probably even more daunting than ours in post-apartheid South Africa.

Then there is the fact that a military takeover, and rule by a Supreme Military Council, is not the same as democracy. The Generals will have to let go in six months.

As journalist and film-maker John Pilger writes, the Egyptian uprising represents the fruits of possibility. And that’s where the uncertainty lies; will democracy truly take root in North Africa?

But as a Middle East Report Online editorial says: “there are moments in world affairs that call for a suspension of disbelief. At these junctures, caution ought to be suppressed and cynicism forgotten to let joy and wonderment resound.

“Across the globe, everyone, at least everyone with a heart, knows that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 is such a time”.

– Shafiq Morton is a presenter at Voice of the Cape radio station. He was South African Vodacom Community Journalist of the Year in 2008 and was recently voted amongst the world’s 500 most influential Muslims by the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategies Study Centre headed by Prof John Esposito of Georgetown University. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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