Restore Our Faith in the Society We Aspired to at Advent of Democracy
BYLINE: RAYMOND ACKERMAN
Like many of my contemporaries in the business world, I am frequently asked how I remain so bullish in the face of the many challenges that confront South Africa. There is often a hint of incredulity that Pick n Pay should continue to invest so confidently in a commercial environment that is threatened by very worrying levels of crime and violence, political uncertainty and deteriorating services.
Unlike many of those who find little good to say about the state of our nation, I am, regrettably, old enough to remember graphically the sheer awfulness of South Africa in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. I recall the dawn raids on African families whose presence in urban areas was deemed to be illegal, the wickedness of the pass laws, the forced removals under the Group Areas Act and the economically suicidal application of race-based job reservation.
And when I remember those things, I have no hesitation in saying that the South Africa of today is a far, far better place than it was before 1994. We live in a country that is governed not by the unchallengeable dictates of cabinet ministers or security chiefs, but by the entrenched principles of a progressive constitution which binds Parliament and citizen alike to a judiciable bill of rights, a free press and an independent judiciary.
The euphoria of the dawning of democracy was intoxicating and the birth of the rainbow nation seductive. But the exhilaration that accompanied the miracle of our national liberation perhaps blinded us to the harsh realities of the transition that was to come. Few of us paused to reflect on the daunting task of reconstruction that awaited a country that had been torn apart and brutalised by decades of apartheid, deprivation, ethnic prejudice and a command economy.
It is only when we reflect on where we were in the darkest days of the last century, and on the poverty, lack of opportunity and political and economic paralysis that characterised our society, that we are able to appreciate the overwhelming magnitude of the difficulties that have faced us in building a new society from the tragedies of the old and recreating ourselves as a normally-functioning and thriving economy.
Above all, I am encouraged by the sense of political renewal that seems to have swept our country in recent months. Everywhere, entrenched certainties are being challenged; where there was deadlock, there is now a new fluidity; where problems seemed intractable, solutions are again being debated. In part, of course, this is the result of the faultlines that are emerging in a governing party which we had begun to believe was monolithic and unchallengeable.
I cannot help feeling that the Barack Obama phenomenon has also impacted on our politics.
Earlier this month - in an extraordinary encounter with the Rubicon - millions of white Christians in the United States voted for a man with one Kenyan parent, that parent having been raised as a Muslim.
The really remarkable thing about Obama's phenomenal rise from virtually nowhere has been his reawakening of something long dormant in the West - a faith in the salutary power of politics and a sense of hope about the worth of public service. Not since the early days of John Kennedy's presidency has there been so tangible a resurgence of confidence in politics as a beneficial means to change the world for the better.
Cynicism about politics has been one of the most defining characteristics of recent decades and has, of course, always been a powerful imperative in the United States, where distrust of government is deeply ingrained in the popular psyche. But cynicism can be a dangerous condition, if only because it sees things as they are, rather than as they should be. I see it all about me in my own country, where it has taken the form of disappointed idealism, corroding our confidence in government's ability to improve the lot of the impoverished, the homeless and the sick. …