Desmond Tutu greets Nelson Mandela after his release from priso in 1990 © David Turnley/Corbis
The news bulletins we are getting about Nelson Mandela indicate that there has been a resurgence of lung trouble. I haven’t been to see him—I didn’t think they would want to be bothered too greatly—but I sent a text message to his wife, Graça.
My concern is that we are not preparing ourselves, as a nation, for the time when the inevitable happens. He’s 94, he’s had a rough time, and God has been very, very good in sparing him for us these many years. But the trauma of his passing is going to be very much intensified if we do not begin to prepare ourselves for the fact that this is going to happen at some time.
At present, people who might want to offer criticisms about the political dispensation may be inhibited from doing so. People who might otherwise vote for different parties are constrained by the sense that it would be a slap in the face to Mandela. These issues are going to intensify what would in any case be a very traumatic experience.
We’ve had a similar experience before, when Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist party, was assassinated in 1993. Our country nearly went up in flames. Mercifully it didn’t, partly because the apartheid government were sensible enough to realise they would have to ask Mandela, who was not yet president, to address the nation and appeal for calm. We have had a trauma of that intensity before, but this time it’s very difficult to know to whom the people could turn who would have the same charisma and authority to console and calm them.
We should be preparing ourselves by erecting a memorial to him—but not a physical one. The best memorial to Nelson Mandela would be a democracy that was really up and running; a democracy in which every single person in South Africa knew that they mattered and where other people knew that each person mattered.
South Africa has the capacity to be one of the most vibrant countries in the world. We have some of the most wonderful people of all races that you could imagine. Our potential is immense. And it’s an ache, it is a very huge ache, for oldies like me to see our country deteriorating and slowly sliding off what we thought belonged to us—the moral high ground. It’s a great pain to see that we still have the kind of disparity we used to decry under the apartheid dispensation.
No one in their right senses would have imagined that we were going to have a paradise overnight, but we imagined that by now we would have made very considerable strides in bridging the gap between the poor and the well off. But today, South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. We can’t hold our heads up with pride when you think of the levels of violence in our country.
During the struggle, I think, we were rather special. There was hardly anyone who would have said that they were in the struggle for self-aggrandisement; that they were looking for a reward. People were amazing in being so altruistic, so idealistic; committing themselves to freedom and saying that they were ready to lay down their lives. We imagined that this idealism and altruism would automatically carry over into the post-apartheid period.
We’ve learnt now that original sin knows absolutely nothing about racial discrimination. We are all tainted by that original sin, and many people who a few years ago would have been ready to lay down their lives are now saying: “What’s in it for me?” You can point to so many instances of corruption, of unaccountability. Seeing how standards have dropped is so galling because it seems to give ammunition to those people who would say: “We warned you that once you had a black majority government you would see a steady decline in standards.” But there are things we’ve done that we should be proud of. We did a wonderful job of hosting the soccer World Cup, when even the criminals went on holiday for two months. It showed our country what we have it in us to become.
I’m not a card-carrying member of any political party. I have over the years voted for the African National Congress (ANC) but I would very sadly not be able to vote for them after the way things have gone. We really need a change. The ANC were very good at leading us in the struggle to be free from oppression. They were a good freedom fighting unit. But it doesn’t seem to me now that a freedom fighting unit can easily make the transition to becoming a political party.
And, unfortunately, we do have a weakness in our constitution. It was important for our transition that we had a proportional representation where people were voting not for a particular candidate but for a party. We still have that system. The party that wins decides who will be its representatives, so everybody wants to get onto the party list. You do not want to jeopardise your chances by being what you ought to be as a member of parliament—someone who ensures that the executive is accountable to the legislature. Now, for example, people want to know why our troops were in the Central African Republic [there are allegations they were there to protect business interests allied to the ANC]. We’ve still not really had an answer. A good parliament would have been one where they were eager to get back to a session where the executive would be taken to task about how they were performing. The first thing that the next parliament must do is change our system so that you elect on the basis of a constituency, where you are voting for an individual person who would be accountable to the electorate. Those in parliament now are accountable first to their party, rather than the electorate.
China has brought a lot of benefits to Africa, with the investments it has made and the building of infrastructure, but it has come at a cost. In South Africa, a lot of people in the textile industry have been thrown out of work because the country has been flooded with cheap Chinese goods. But what has been even more distressing for me is how our country has seemed to kowtow to Beijing.
The most glaring example is what they did with the Dalai Lama, when the South African government dilly-dallied with his visa so that he couldn’t come to my birthday party. [In 2011, the Dalai Lama wasn’t able to attend Tutu’s 80th birthday because the government took too long to process his visa application. The ANC said the Dalai Lama had not been barred from South Africa, but it is widely believed it was acting under pressure from Beijing.] The other example is our performance at the United Nations. The things we have voted for or against have been a disgrace. It has been a total betrayal of our whole tradition and that’s a very sad thing.
Deliberate decisions by politicians have caused the terrible situation in our neighbouring country, Zimbabwe. I keep thinking how it was one of our showpiece countries. Just a few years ago, it was thriving with a vibrant democracy and a president who was generally somebody held in high regard. Obviously, one is longing desperately that Zimbabwe can recover the glory of those days. It seems such an utter, utter madness, the things that they’ve done there—destroying a very profitable agricultural sector, for example, by handing over farms to people who really weren’t able to run them and who let equipment go to seed, as it were. But people are very resilient and I’m just hoping that one day that country can recover to play the significant role it was, as a prosperous, food-exporting country. One has to give the people considerable credit for still being able to smile, given that they’ve seen a beautiful country being turned into a nightmare. It will be costly but I think one day we will be able to look back and say: “Yes, it was a nightmare, but the nightmare is over.”
South Africa has many gifted people who could lead our country. But, at the present time, a great deal of political loyalty is based on the fact that these are the people who fought for the freedom we now enjoy. Very many people are really voting with their hearts, rather than with their heads. Emotionally, you need a real turnaround to get them to see that when you vote for a political party you are voting for its policies and whether those are the things you want to see happen. It is no longer something that you can base on emotional links we had with the people who strove for our freedom.