Things worth reading on South Africa, Mandela and fake sign-language

With so much content being produced on the average day, it’s easy for some of the most worthwhile pieces to pass you by, no matter how good your network of curators might be. Today, three pieces were published that I think worthy of your serious attention, and to them I’d want to add something written earlier this week. These four columns are superb, and because I suspect that the regular readers of this website would agree, I’d like to highlight them here.

First, Ivo Vegter’s Daily Maverick column on the old South African flag that he keeps as a reminder of where we’ve been as a country, and how we got to where we are today. Ivo and I are less than a year apart in age, and my experiences overlap considerably with those expressed in the column. But it’s not the veracity of the historical details that is most important in this column, rather the way in which Ivo captures the  mood of the time, and the soothing effect that Mandela had on a fractured nation.

As I’ve written before, though, that balm came at a cost – any grand mythology tends to do so, because they encourage us to substitute honest (and painful) self-reflection with optimistic cliches (the “Rainbow Nation”) or an inflated sense of our value to the rest of the world (to think that we belong in the BRICs, for example). Honest self-reflection about South Africa is what the second column, by Chris Roper (Editor-in-Chief at the Mail & Guardian) focuses on. In “The lies Nelson Mandela taught us“, Roper reminds us that we’re not special nor exceptional, and that nobody in the rest of the world has an obligation to think we are. Mandela allowed us to believe the opposite, and telling us these lies, Roper says, might well have given us a

kick-start as a nation. But they have run their course. It’s time to trade Mandela’s lies for Jacob Zuma’s truths, hard truths though they be. The truths of our extreme ordinariness and of our distressing propensity for the three isms of the apocalypse – nepotism, despotism and cronyism.

Third, and in a similar vein, Sarah Britten brings us a Thought Leader column (also on the Mail & Guardian website) on “The eloquence of the fake-signing man” – a title that readers would surely recognise as darkly ironic, in that Thamsanqa Jantjie (the “fake signer” in question) could hardly be less eloquent (in terms of the job he was paid to do) than he actually was on the day. Instead, he speaks eloquently, and tragically, of lowered expectations and standards in South Africa – on how convincing bluster can win the day, even if you have nothing of consequence to contribute to a debate, to a classroom, a Parliament, or a Presidency.

Which neatly (almost as if by design!) brings me to the fourth column, by Tony Weaver in the Cape Times. This column is arguably about what happens when you do your job well, but offend those with power and thin skins in doing so. Weaver’s “Man Friday” column is a first-hand account of the Cape Times newsroom on the night and early morning that Mandela died, and of how well the editor, Alide Dasnois, marshalled the various resources at her disposal to produce what Weaver describes as “the best newspaper I have ever worked on”, and which was also voted as “one of the 14 best front pages in the world” by Time Magazine.

Dasnois was relieved of her position that morning, just as many South Africans were first hearing of Mandela’s death. In writing this tribute to her editorship, for the same publication, Weaver has effectively told Dr Iqbal Surve (chairperson of the newspaper group in question) that whatever his strengths might be, defending editorial independence – and judging the quality of an editor – aren’t among them. Let’s hope he doesn’t lose his column for saying so.

To the four columnists who wrote these pieces – thank you. I know that it’s sometimes rather frustrating to put such energy and thought into constructing a column, only to find that it serves mostly as troll-fodder. There will be (and are) trolls aplenty on two of the columns already, but also many who, like me, are grateful and feel enriched thanks to work such as this.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.