The Fine Art of Nation-Building

18 August 2014
From left: Former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs, former UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Mamphela Ramphele, and Markus Meckel, member of the German parliament, debate the similarities and differences between South Africa and Germany as both countries move forward from difficult political pasts.
From left: Former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs, former UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Mamphela Ramphele, and Markus Meckel, member of the German parliament, debate the similarities and differences between South Africa and Germany as both countries move forward from difficult political pasts.

The political situations in South Africa and Germany came under the spotlight recently, when a panel which included former Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs and former UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Mamphele Ramphele joined German MP Markus Meckel to discuss the role fear plays in the politics of both countries.

A fear of failure is holding South Africans back; and causing us, as a nation, to settle for mediocrity in education, healthcare and infrastructure.

This was Dr Mamphela Ramphele's assessment of South Africa two decades after democratisation. She opened a panel discussion, titled 20 years of democracy in South Africa - 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall: two countries in transition, which formed part of the EU Inspiring Thinkers Series. Describing herself as a "failed politician", she added that 18 months ago she had embarked on something she knew nothing about - founding the political party Agang SA - and expressed gratitude that she had failed.

"Twenty years on, and we wrestle with success and the fear of failure. Forty years ago a young student - Steve Bantu Biko - stated that 'fear is the determinant of South African politics'. Back then we feared our white oppressors, and suffered from an inferiority complex. Today we are afraid to fail as individuals, as families and as institutions," she explained.

Former Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs agreed with her, adding that although "there is far too much conceptual fear – our people are not frightened of authority in the same way we were afraid of authority before. People speak their minds, they protest - they go out in the street. When Marikana happened it was so terrible, ugly and shocking; but it wasn't accepted as normal. It sent a shock wave through the whole of the country. The shock was felt more profoundly by those of us who had fought against these kinds of things in the past."

On the role of fear in German politics, Markus Meckel - the third member of the panel, and a former foreign minister of East Germany and member of the German Bundestag (parliament) - pointed out that a regime like the one that operated in communist Germany could only be sustained by fear. "If (the people) lose that fear - that was our experience, but I think it's similar to that of South Africans - and are ready to suffer and sacrifice (for their freedom), then they can topple such a regime," he commented.

Bold steps necessary

Ramphele is of the opinion that South Africa can learn a lot from German reunification - which Meckel described as his country's "negotiated revolution".

"The Germans have shown us that by being bold and taking risks, they built themselves into a strong, resilient, peaceful society – We have a task which is incomplete. The next 20 years have to be about dismantling the extractive economic and political institutions we inherited from the past. We need to build inclusive economic and political institutions to enable us to live up to the ideals of our society," Ramphele said.

She countered Sachs' optimism regarding South Africa's successes since becoming a democracy. "My concern is that the standard by which we measure success is so low that we are not challenging ourselves enough to have a vision of something bigger."

Sachs maintained that one of the country's successes had been the elections held post-1994. "We used to hear the story: 'One man, one vote. Once!', implying that black people cannot manage democracy, and that democracy is for Europe. We've had five elections that were overwhelmingly free and fair. We've had four presidents. We take that for granted."

Ramphele reacted to this by saying, "Regarding the free and fair elections, Albie, we are all very proud of the track record. You and I experience the best of the democracy that we have; but if you are with me in Philippi and see how people are treated at voter stations, there is nothing free - not there, in the experiences of many people."

Sachs maintained that the greatest achievement of his generation was to secure permanent constitutional foundations to deal with current crises. "I feel deep personal, historic satisfaction with what we South Africans achieved (in the past), but dissatisfaction with so much that is going on in our society (today). I believe our satisfaction gives us the capacity and our past gives us the instruments to deal with our current dissatisfaction."

Reunification v Unification

Dr Zwelethu Jolobe from the Department of Political Studies, who joined the discussion when the panel took questions from the audience, had an interesting take on why the South African and German experiences were divergent, with some points of contact. "In Germany the story is one of reunification, which talks of coming back home to something which was there (before). Whereas here it is one of unification, with people who perhaps at a certain point never at all thought of themselves as being one people– And that's why it's a lot more messy, because the home that we want to build was never there," he concluded.

Meckel stated that the challenge facing both South Africa and Germany is how to deal with the past. "We looked to South Africa when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established because we had a similar struggle, which was: how do we deal with those who worked with the former communist dictatorship?"

He also observed that most Germans do not view theirs as a country in transition, but that many from the former communist bloc disagreed. "In the former East Germany we have a double-digit unemployment rate, and a lot of people feel like second-class citizens. In other words, they do not feel acknowledged as equals by their countrymen from the former West Germany."

The UCT debate was the second in the EU Inspiring Thinkers Series. It was organised jointly by the university's Department of Political Studies, the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of South Africa, and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in South Africa. Professor Anthony Butler, head of the Department of Political Studies, hosted the speakers on behalf of the university.

Story by Abigail Calata. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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