March of history
Watching Nelson Mandela’s inauguration on television back in 1994, it was striking how well the great man had persuaded the world to view his country the way he did; and not the way it really was. Mandela saw a country muddied by the muck of Apartheid; but he also saw the tremendous promise of its people. He led by example too – publicly forgiving those who had incarcerated him for 27 years; inviting actual enemies into his first Cabinet; and embracing the principle of a negotiated settlement to South Africa's most intractable problems especially around property rights.
As SA celebrated its ascent to the Africa’s summit, Rwanda was convulsing from a Hutu-led pogrom in which at least 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were literary butchered to death. During that autumn of 1994, South Africa was like a bright dawn and Rwanda a hellish twilight zone. What a difference 23 years have made. Today, Rwanda is a stable little country led since 1994 by Paul Kagame. The streets of its towns and the capital, Kigali, are all well-lit and litter-free. Corruption is unheard of. Minutes of cabinet meetings are posted online. Additionally, Rwanda has become one of the most tech-savvy countries on the continent. Sure, Kagame maintains the hold of a strongman on Rwanda’s politics, which includes last December’s constitutional change to allow him to run again as president. However, his flawed democracy has brought stability to a country that had previously only known tribalfuelled violence. His compatriots couldn't care less what the rest of the world think of Rwanda.
The past 23 years have unfortunately not been as kind to South Africa. Unshackled from apartheid, South Africans have re-discovered the tribal chauvinism so common in other African countries, and whose chickens have yet to come home to roost here. South Africans have also developed a virulent xenophobia (especially against fellow Africans) that is uncommon elsewhere in Africa. Meanwhile, the political elite have hollowed out the economy by destroying almost 4.2 million jobs since 1994 and mothballing a once thriving manufacturing sector. Compared to Rwanda, South Africa has thrown more money at almost every conceivable societal problem since 1994, but with considerably fewer returns. Bureaucratic incompetence, cronyism and corruption are like a runaway train, while citizens feed on a daily diet of meaningless terms like Black Economic Empowerment, White Capital, State Capture and Radical Economic Transformation. The constitution, of which South Africans are so proud, is ignored and only invoked during tawdry political speeches and incessant court battles.
Meanwhile, democracy has failed to tame the parochial and nativist instincts of most of the political elite and a result; there has been almost zero deepening of democratic values beyond the five yearly elections.
All in all, South Africa and Rwanda both are deeply flawed democracies, but the East Africans are doing so much better on every other front that its citizens do not care. South Africans? Well, the time for reckoning will arrive. Eventually.