A year ago I wrote about the eerie similarities between South Africa under the African National Congress (ANC) and Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). As the two countries took to the field today in the opening match of the 2010 World Cup, the irony wasn't lost on me.
Despite the inevitable (and rightly so) fanfare of the games, "The reality of the situation in South Africa," writes former South African MP Andrew Feinstein, "is that what was once a leading liberation movement is now a fairly squalid political party involving huge factionalism, fights over patronage and a lack of focus on the very important issues of governance that exist." The same might be said about the PRI after the Mexican Revolution.
Feinstein, who was widely regarded as one of the ANC's leading young minds, resigned in 2001 in protest of ANC's refusal to allow a thorough investigation into high-level corruption surrounding South Africa's misguided $5 billion arms deal. Much of what's gone wrong in the country over the past five years has its roots in this arms deal.
"The idealism that so burned in the eyes of liberation figures has given way to fairly widespread corruption at national and local levels," writes Princeton Lyman. "And a cronyism between party leaders and newly enriched black business elite...has tarnished the ANC's image."
But this is not the place to rehash the troubling challenges South Africa faces. I'll leave that to the experts. The point is that we shouldn't romanticize the situation in South Africa just because of the World Cup. There's much more at stake for South African's this year than economic stimulus and national pride. Though neither would hurt, this moment in South African (and indeed African) history is best characterized by the Mexican writer and critic Octavio Paz:
All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable [sic.] and very precious. ...Much the same thing happens to nations and peoples at a certain critical moment in their development. They ask themselves: What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are?
National character is not immutable, Paz thought. It changes with time. And, as journalist Alec Russell writes, "It is time to see [South Africa] for what it is: An emerging market economy stalked by inequality and high crime, overseen by an incompetent, corrupt elite - rather than a lurid morality tale. It is a troubled country, muddling along, no more and no less."
DANIEL MAREE is an independent writer, producer and entrepreneur with a passion for philosophy, politics, and film.