It seems a long time ago – 1999. But it was a watershed year for me. There was an election. Nelson Mandela had decided to stand down after just one term in office and Thabo Mbeki was leading the ANC into the polls.
I was editor of the Financial Mail. Editing weekly publications is much more difficult in a way than dailies because you live off ideas. On a daily, the news always saves you at the last minute.
My idea about a month before the election was to endorse a political party. Endorsements are standard practice in Anglo-Saxon journalism and while I understood what I was about to do might mean trouble, I was keen on making an endorsement.
Publications are privileged animals and it is important for people to know where they actually stand.
You can normally tell anyway. Story selection or the way news is interpreted differs from paper to paper – or, today, from screen to screen. But a publication on whatever technology without a daily editorial opinion is an empty vessel. It stands for nothing.
So my cover that fateful week had a picture of Bantu Holomisa on it with the caption “Put this Bantu back in his place” and below, in smaller type, “Parliament”.
Inside I wrote a two-page endorsement of Holomisa’s party, the United Democratic Movement, and a strong criticism of the ANC.
It became the biggest story of the election. I was pilloried in rival papers.
Mathatha Tsedu called for my head. Kader Asmal told me it was the one thing I would be remembered for.
Inside my company, the then Times Media, there was consternation. Cyril Ramaphosa, whose National Empowerment Consortium had bought Times Media, was outraged.
A day after the magazine came out, he called me and dressed me down for about half an hour in which I was unable to get a word in edgeways.
I had never heard the steel in Ramaphosa’s voice before and I will never forget it. Not once, though, did he threaten to fire me.
Eventually the tumult passed. There seemed general agreement that South Africa was “not ready” for endorsements. I’ve never seen another one and I remember Stephen Mulholland, a former Financial Mail editor, telling me I should have told my board what I planned to do.
He was right.
But I did it because I genuinely admired Holomisa and still do.
With the passage of time, his stature has risen even though his party hasn’t. He is still my man.
As of last Thursday, however, I am a pensioner. On contract. So I don’t have to ask anyone for permission to endorse Ramaphosa for the upcoming ANC leadership election.
He may not be perfect, but of the two main candidates he is by far the best to take the party and, more importantly, the country forward.
We are in deep trouble in South Africa. Corruption is endemic, unemployment is among the highest in the world, deindustrialisation is happening at a rapid rate and it is just a matter of time before the World Bank or the IMF has to come to our rescue. The rescue, when it comes, will not be pretty either.
The fact is that Jacob Zuma has put our sovereignty on the line and his chosen successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has given no clues in her long campaign about how she would pull us back from the brink.
In fact, when she has spoken it has been to parrot her former husband: we need more nuclear power, we need more banks, we need to nationalise land without compensation.
She will be surrounded by Zuma’s people – the same crew that has bankrupted South African Airways, bankrupted Eskom, bankrupted the Central Energy Fund and stuck the South African Revenue Service with a R50-billion tax shortfall. That’ll be closer to R600-billion by the end of the financial year.
Her election campaign has been run by Bathabile Dlamini, arguably the most incompetent minister in Zuma’s Cabinet.
Dlamini-Zuma has nothing to offer poor, working-class and middle-class South Africans but more of the same. A win for her would be devastating to our future, and yet she is achingly close to victory.
The media’s role or influence in our political economy is easily (and always cynically) overstated, but I would hope that every serious publication in the country, digital or physical, finds the courage to come out before the ANC gathers at Nasrec in Johannesburg and delegates put up their hands for a candidate. It’s important for people to know what they stand for. The same would apply to the 2019 general election.
If it’s an endorsement of Dlamini-Zuma, so be it. We’re a complex, wonderful democracy. But with the governing party in mind in these past few days, only Ramaphosa has anything remotely resembling a plan to extract us from the mess.
He has already put some flesh on the bones of it, in Soweto a few weeks ago. Critics tried to run him down but they would, wouldn’t they?
To those delegates meeting at Nasrec, if you want South Africa still standing in five years’ time, vote for Ramaphosa.
If you’re only in this for yourself, and for tomorrow, go with the crooks.
Peter Bruce writes for Tiso Blackstar