At some time during my first day or so back in Cape Town I realised I am far more proud of my SA ties than of my Irish roots. It could have struck me while I was reading about the legal action by Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute challenging energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s dodgy nuclear deal with the Russians.
It could have been while catching up with Corruption Watch’s efforts to ensure Thuli Madonsela’s successor was the best available candidate. Or perhaps it was Sipho Pityana’s moving address at Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral or signs that the Amadiba Crisis Committee had finally won a reprieve, however temporary, from threats to their beautiful coastal environment.
It could even have been the "Pravin Gordhan to be arrested" headlines followed quickly by the "Gordhan not to be arrested" headlines.
SA civil society is alive, remarkably well and, as always, very noisy. Of course it cannot always be assumed the activities of self-appointed nongovernmental organisations play an important or even appropriate role in a democracy. But 22 years of SA evidence suggests overwhelmingly that they do. Even if at times, in their self-importance, they are frustrating.
Across the globe daily it becomes more evident that nothing can be taken for granted in any democracy; in one as young as ours it is crucial that every one of its unsteady steps should be contested vigorously.
Because of this contestation we live in a volatile and uncertain country. It is not one for sissies but it is exhilarating and holds unimaginable promise.
It struck me, as I was trying to settle back in, how well-served we are by our civil society heroes. It’s a shame that Ireland, where I’d just spent a week, wasn’t as well served in the early days of its independence. If it had been, perhaps it would not now be proclaiming, without any sense of embarrassment, its industrial policy to be the piracy of tax revenues from other countries (many of them developing countries). Successive feckless governments might not have looked on as half of the population was forced to search elsewhere for work.
Legend has it that when asked what he intended doing about the steadily increasing jobless figures in the 1980s, Charlie Haughey, a Zuma-like prime minister, replied: "Make more boats available" (to take the unemployed to England).
Emigration drained Ireland of the people who refuse to sit by and watch a country’s potential disintegrate; the sort of people who now drive SA’s robust civil society. Emigration led to the disintegration of Ireland’s independence into a corrupt cronyism that catered only to a small minority of citizens.
The space that should have been occupied by civil society was dominated by a vile church presence. Bizarrely, for most of the 20th century the Catholic Church was allowed to inflict more abuse on the Irish than the English had done in previous centuries.
Almost 100 years later, Ireland’s politics are still dominated by the same two narrowly focused post-independence parties that have taken turns to rule since 1922. Society is deeply divided, with a large underclass struggling to cope with poor housing and health services.
But perhaps what really made me proud to be South African was listening to Gordhan address the Open Book Festival. Gordhan, a remarkably canny operator who appears to have unlimited energy, is determined SA will not slide down that easy path of corruption and cronyism — a path from which so few newly independent states have been able to emerge.
He knows preventing the calcification of corruption in a new state requires constant vigilance. The battle is not over, it may never be over. But every day Gordhan survives, he thrives as the other good people, of whom there are many, join him because he has shown them there is an option.