The Diary: Alec Russell

I arrive in South Africa barely 24 hours into the Oscar Pistorius circus. On my first night in Cape Town, I meet old friends from the heady days of the end of apartheid in a cacophonous Portuguese restaurant. As the Pinotage flows, one puts his head in his hands. “Again!” he mock-moans over the arrest of the Paralympic sprint champion on charges of murdering his girlfriend. “We had barely got over Hansie Cronje” – a reference to the mid-1990s cricket captain who was a national hero until he was exposed as a serial fixer of matches.

“I had barely got over Zola Budd,” says another, recalling the barefoot South African-born athlete who infamously collided with the world champion Mary Decker in the 3,000m final at the 1984 Olympics in LA.

South Africans love being the centre of the world’s attention. But it is hard to exaggerate the embarrassment and angst engulfing them over the “Blade Runner”. To those fretting about their country’s image, I have the answer, improbable as it may sound: follow the lead of the African National Congress Youth League.

I have been writing about South Africa for 20 years, on and off, and never thought I’d find myself saluting the get-rich-quick populists that make up the ruling party’s youth wing. Yes, decades ago, Nelson Mandela used it to force through change in the then ossified ANC. But it has long since been little more than a vehicle for activists on the make with a penchant for pseudo-Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

Then, a few days into my trip, my inbox pinged with an email from the league that seemed, well, rather sensible. It had taken umbrage at the global obsession with the Pistorius saga, in particular pronouncements by visiting hacks that his seeming obsession with guns reflected eternal truths about the post-apartheid state.

Quite right! South Africa has always yielded a stream of lurid copy. I’ve written my share over the years and, of course, the Pistorius bail hearing was a cracking story. But the idea that life here is so murderous that it is standard practice to sleep, Pistorius-style, with a gun in your bedroom, is nonsense. Apart from the odd farmer and township tsotsi (gangster) in the bad old days, the only South African I have met bearing a gun was Pieter Botha, son of PW Botha, hardline president of the 1980s.

“There will be a civil war,” Botha Jnr told me ahead of the country’s first all-race elections in 1994. “The Afrikaner right will not stand for this.” I reported his sentiments with scepticism. We should be just as sceptical of the idea that the Pistorius saga reinforces the cartoon “to hell in a handbasket” view of South Africa. This time I will happily echo the old chant: Viva the ANC Youth League, viva!

I was in South Africa to watch my 12-year-old son, Ned, play for his school on a cricket tour of the Cape. Their first opponents were Langa township, the oldest in the Cape. The ground, complete with stands and pavilion – and barbed-wire-tipped stadium fence – is just down from a shanty town that many FT readers will have sped past (averted their gaze from?) en route from the airport to the delights of Cape Town. I told Eric, the township club manager, that the last time I was there was nearly 20 years ago to the day to cover a riot. “I was one of the ones throwing stones at you,” he beamed.

The opening batsman for Langa put the English bowlers to the sword. It was one of the more dominant displays of schoolboy batting I have seen. Then, inexplicably, he was out. In the event, the visitors won easily. But the years of English dominance over township teams may be nearing an end.

There followed in quick succession four matches against what were once white-only government schools. The visitors put up a fight and even ambushed the local school in the small town of Malmesbury – not least by keeping a mighty farmer’s son off the strike for a critical period of play. But their other three hosts, in particular in Paarl, cradle of the Afrikaans language, were just too good: not a ball was fumbled, not a catch uncaught.

What is the secret? “Discipline and commitment,” says one of the cricket masters. “And politics ... You don’t want to be the sports master who tells the principal his team has lost.”

In their knee-length socks and striped blazers, the young South African cricketers, of all races, presented a vision of a society adapting one step at a time. So how is the school changing? I ask the headmaster. He pauses. “We are introducing Mandarin classes.” Mandarin in Paarl? Not for the first time on my trip I was reminded that South Africa is increasingly looking to the east.

On day six of the tour, I put aside my camera, pick up a notebook and head to the president’s Cape Town offices, Tuynhuys. Over the years, I have interviewed Mandela – including under a tree in his garden – and his successor Thabo Mbeki several times. This was the first time I had interviewed Jacob Zuma since he became president four years ago.

He is, on paper, at the height of his powers. He has won a second term as leader of the ANC. On the morning of my encounter the humiliation of his gadfly opponent, Julius Malema, former leader of the youth league, was complete. Malema’s possessions were under the hammer to pay a tax bill.

Yet Zuma seems uncharacteristically subdued. I find him sucking on an orange to counter a dose of summer flu – his grandmother’s advice, he says. He assures FT readers that the Marikana tragedy of last year, when police killed dozens of striking miners, was an aberration and says that the mining executives who claim there are better opportunities elsewhere in Africa should keep the faith in South Africa. There are laws here seldom found in the rest of the continent, he says.

After four years in which opponents have accused his government of drift, I ask how the ANC is really any different to all the other liberation movements that have ended up losing their way? “I think the ANC is going to be there for a long long long time to come,” he says. For all the scandals and the lassitude enveloping the ruling party, rival movements such as the one set up last week by Mamphela Ramphele, a former activist and World Bank official, will struggle to prove him wrong.

On my final night, my oldest South African friend, an Afrikaner writer turned advocate who is a keen hunter, tells me he is about to buy a new shotgun. He will be visited by the police and endlessly questioned. His gun safe will be checked. So much for the gun-mad nation of stereotype.

Hours earlier, Pistorius had been granted bail by the doughty Pretoria magistrate Desmond Nair. For more than two hours, Nair had been beamed live around the world. With his compendious grasp of the argument and precedents he has done valuable repair work to the reputation of South Africa.

Viva Nair, viva!

Alec Russell is the FT’s news editor and author of ‘After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa’

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.