But the letter I was seeking remained elusive. Much like that dream of the egalitarian and democratic society that we so cherished twenty years ago. Back in the eighties, it seemed improbable that we would ever attain this dream, but we thought this would be because PW Botha and the ugly black hat brigade would rule this land to the end of time. We did not for a moment countenance the possibility that the heroes of our beloved liberation movement would be selling out our tender hopes for tender hopes of a different kind.
So. Disappointing, that. I would have loved to be able to put my cross next to the ANC on May 7 with the same passionate enthusiasm with which I made my mark next to Madiba’s cheery face. Alas, I would now have put my X almost anywhere in the world but next to Zuma’s self-serving leer.
Because however much the current ANC has dashed our hopes for equality, liberty etc., it is sometimes good to remind ourselves of how truly nasty this country was before 1994. It really was, and those two small reminders – my confiscated items list and my lost typewriter – brought back to me how pervasive state repression was, how commonplace it was for people to be harassed, beaten or killed. Being searched and having documents confiscated was of course very minor harassment in the context of those times, but if it happened to anyone today it would be met with righteous and justified outrage. It was a horrid, horrid place for anyone not classified as white, and a horrid place for anyone with any moral values, whatever the colour of your skin.
So yes, I would still vote for the ANC over PW Botha any day of the week. But that’s not saying much. The bar for democracy was set so low by our previous government it was basically invisible, but that doesn’t mean we should not aspire to do a lot better.
And so far we are doing better. Not nearly as well as we should be, but better than a lot of our current leadership would like, I suspect. We can still write rude things about them in the newspapers without someone in a trench coat and a moustache banging on the door at midnight. Thuli Madonsela can still rip into the Nkandla scandal and make sure we all know about it. We still have one day every five years where everyone, from the President lounging in his firepool to the homeless jokes-for-change seller, has exactly the same political power to choose the next government. Before the first democratic election, there was panic buying of baked beans and toilet paper – there seemed to be a belief that the moment a darker hued backside was lowered in the presidential chair, the entire infrastructure of the country would fling up its skirts in alarm and expire on the spot. But while too many of us lack toilets in which to deploy it, toilet paper has remained in steady supply.
So despite our dire predictions (and don’t we South African’s love dire predictions?) about our slide into corruption and dictatorships, democracy is still alive, our country functions (mostly), we haven’t all murdered each other yet. BUT, the report card still echoes almost every teacher who ever commented on my academic progress: Could do better. We could, and we should, and we need to daily remind ourselves of that elusive dream. But maybe we should stop throwing up our hands because our heroes have turned to straw and failed to deliver us Utopia, and focus instead on delivering it ourselves.
I used to believe in grand solutions. When I was twenty years old, I might have sported a red beret and championed Julius Malema’s cockeyed ‘economic freedom’ policies, had he been around to spout them. Now my ambitions are much humbler. Now I recognise that humans are fallible, that power does indeed corrupt, that the global economy is predicated on exploitation and inequality and South Africa does not operate in a vacuum. But I still believe that most people have an impulse towards kindness and fairness, and I believe in the accumulative power of small actions… that old butterfly tsunami thing. So this is my pledge for the next 20 years of democracy (if senility does not take me before they are up): to keep tinkering away at our faulty democracy, and fix whatever bits come to my attention – write a letter, sign a petition, wave a placard, pat an anxious dog, whatever it takes to foster a kinder, more connected, and happier home country. And tidier… where did I put that dratted letter…?