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Jonathan Ball

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Justice Malala’s We Have Now Begun Our Descent Ascends from The Book Lounge with Palesa Morudu

Justice Malala and Palesa Morudu

There was barely a free seat at The Book Lounge for the launch of Justice Malala’s latest book, We Have Now Begun Our Descent: How To Stop South Africa Losing Its Way, recently.

As one of the country’s leading political analysts, Malala is a fierce but fair critic who doesn’t hold back in his piercing analysis of politicians’ decisions. His weekly television show, The Justice Factor, focuses on contemporary politics and has provided the fertile soil from which this new book grew. He was joined in conversation by Palesa Morudu, author, activist, entrepreneur and the managing director of Cover2Cover Books, a company that focuses on the vital work of encouraging children to read.

Justice MalalaWe Have Now Begun Our DescentWelcoming Malala for the “incredible amount of sense he speaks”, Mervyn Sloman, the owner of The Books Lounge, expressed delight to be hosting the very first launch in the country. He urged the crowd to pay particular attention to the subtitle. “It’s not about ‘Let’s roll up the streets, and can the last person to leave the country please switch off the lights!’ It’s an extremely insightful book about how we got to where we are and where we’re going.”

Morudu then discussed the book with the author. She was a more than capable match for Malala in conversation, asking her own brand of piercing question. But first, Morudu set the context of where the book was written – reflecting on the history of Hammanskraal and the bizarre ramifications of the Group Areas Act with it pencil test that divided families. She then read a hard-hitting extract from the book about Malala’s brother’s death at 14 and the ANC hero’s funeral he was given. The reading included an extract from Albie Sachs’ paper, “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom”.

This paper was written just before the dawn of democracy in South Africa and continues to inform Malala’s thinking:

We think we are the best (and we are), that is why we are in the ANC. We work hard to persuade the people of our country that we are the best (and we are succeeding). But this does not require us to force our views down the throats of others.

On the contrary, we exercise true leadership by being non-hegemonic, by selflessly trying to create the widest unity of the oppressed and to encourage all forces of change, by showing the people that we are fighting not to impose a view upon them but to give them the right to choose the kind of society they want and the kind of government they want.

We are not afraid of the ballot box, of open debate, of opposition … One fine day we will even have our Ian Smith equivalents protesting and grumbling about every change being made and looking back with nostalgia to the good old days of apartheid, but we will take them on at the hustings. In conditions of freedom, we have no doubt who will win, and if we should forfeit the trust of the people, then we deserve to lose.

“Are you angry? Is this personal?” Morudu wanted to know, with respect to the ANC.

With his inimitable honesty, Malala said it was: “To some extent it is personal because we never talk enough about where we come from. In the ANC we talked about what was good in the world and how to be fully human. My anger is really about the fact that we aimed so high and we’re achieving so little; we’ve come so low. The standard I set for all of us is the standard I grew up believing was the standard for all of us. I look around and in many senses see we’ve become indifferent to the very high standards in the document set out by Albie Sachs.”

Morudu questioned whether he wasn’t simplifying the issue by reducing the problem to the fault of Jacob Zuma. “I understand, with reason …” she laughed. “But is this a proper diagnosis of the problem?”

Malala replied, “We have not fully delved into how deeply skew our society is, but have asserted that leadership matters. In whatever walk of life – whether corporate or in government – it matters what happens at the top. Look at all the indicators since Zuma came to power in 2007.” He referred to the student activists and their anger: “In 2007 at Polokwane the ANC took a decision based on the Freedom Charter that promised free education to poor students, but nothing has been done about it.

Malala agreed that not every problem could be reduced to Zuma, but youth unemployment has risen since Zuma’s presidency commenced in 2009. “Perhaps the societal problems we face would better be dealt with if we had a core of leadership that was more attuned to what the people want, rather than what ‘the personality’ wishes to achieve,” he said.

Morudu moved the conversation to reflection on the Arab Spring: “We tend to think our problems are so huge, but if you look at what other countries are going through, we’re not so bad. Consider Egypt.”

Malala countered, asking whether that was a good enough reason to lower the bar. “Egypt was interesting if you compare it to South Africa. It had high youth unemployment, that is similar to the South African condition. If you have so many young people unemployed there is nothing to lose. Every five years you have a release of frustration through voting. We believe we have agency, but if you take away the ability to vote, if you perceive that your vote is meaningless … we’re an amazing country. We sit here enjoying fantastic wine, but we must realise that it doesn’t take long to get to a point where we are just patting our backs, unaware of the real problem.”

Morudu asked Malala about his “Aha!” moment about democracy in South Africa on the occasion of the State of the Nation Address this year. Malala nodded, saying, “One of the things that happened on that day is that there were men – we didn’t know who they were – SAPS? Intelligence services? A secret army? – that was sent in to silence Malema in Parliament. If 1.1 million people voted for Malema’s party, they deserve to be in the house to raise issues. They don’t have carte blanche to behave abominably. But does that justify the shutting down communications?”

This vibrant conversation continued for well over an hour and everybody present was given much food for thought. This book will give readers a springboard to thinking more deeply about the situation our country faces. It will possibly cause you to feel as angry as the author, but it will likely give you a sense of hope too.

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:


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