Still hopeful of an honest new South Africa
East London, South Africa
So far it was all good-natured. The sun was still climbing but not yet so hot as to cause tempers to boil over. A group of elderly ladies from the ANC Women's League beckoned me over.
"Come sit with us," said Agnes, who came from the township of New Brighton in Port Elizabeth up the coast. The ladies were curious. Where had I come from, what did I think of South Africa now?
I asked a question of my own in return.
Did they know Fr Teddy Molyneaux from Listowel?
Teddy is a legend. It was he who helped the newspaper editor Donald Woods flee South Africa when he was being hunted down by the apartheid security police.
And it was Teddy who gave me my first experience of township life back in the mid 1980s just as the wave of unrest that would eventually end white rule was beginning.
Teddy Molyneaux landed in South Africa from north Kerry in the 1960s at a time when all hopes of black liberation were being crushed by the Afrikaner nationalists. As it turned out one of the ANC women had heard of Teddy and spoke of how he had always identified with the people. A good man.
There was a network of Irish priests and nuns who helped me back in those days: Corkman Dick O'Riordan up in the Transkei, from where he would eventually be expelled by the apartheid authorities, Dubliner Sister Aine Hardiman in Port Elizabeth, Fr Des Curran from Belfast in the sprawling squatter camps outside Cape Town. These were gutsy people who lived their faith in a practical way.
In this benevolent atmosphere we settled down to wait for the speeches. The new party leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, was already onstage, checking and re-checking the speech he was to deliver, a man clearly in possession of the moment.
Suddenly there was a kerfuffle near the stage, a blur of sunglasses, sharp suits and walkie talkies. Somebody was coming. The public address boomed into action: "We welcome… Jacob Zuma…"
Immediately the atmospherics changed. The booing seemed to begin high up in the stands and then rolled down across the field. I looked up and saw standing figures gesticulate furiously towards the stage. They waved. Many were shouting. "Away, away."
I pushed my way to the front of the crowd in time to see Zuma take his seat. If he was upset or embarrassed by his reception he gave no public sign of it. That is the nature of the man. Brass neck does not begin to describe his capacity for enduring political, press and public opprobrium.
But the president of the republic looked an isolated man. In the weeks since Cyril Ramaphosa took over leadership of the party, Zuma has watched his power drain away. Imagine the humiliation a few minutes later when Ramaphosa stood up and reminded the crowd that the rally was starting exactly on time and that this was part of the big change coming to the ANC and South Africa. The Zuma era was notorious for its lack of punctuality, among many other things.
Zuma wielded power through patronage and the subversion of the state security agencies. Those who couldn't be bought off were harassed. As a consequence South Africa was deluged by corruption. An Indian immigrant family, the Guptas, hired Zuma's son as a fixer for their business interests and as a consequence became fabulously wealthy through a network of shady deals involving state enterprises, so much so that the phrase 'State Capture' has become synonymous with Zuma.
I have watched Ramaphosa since the 1980s when he was a union leader challenging the mine bosses. During the negotiations to end apartheid rule he was the most astute of all ANC leaders and was Mandela's hand-picked successor until party politicking got in the way. Now his time has finally come. It is South Africa's tragedy that the country had to go through the age of Zuma in order to get to Ramaphosa. Unknown billions have been squandered and lost and the country's reputation has been dragged through the mud.
Can Ramaphosa turn all of this around? Corruption is so deeply embedded at all levels of government that it will take relentless determination, and many years and prosecutions, to root it out. This weekend the party leadership met to plot a way forward. The word is that Zuma will be eased out of the country's presidency in the next few weeks, as soon as Ramaphosa gets back from Davos where he will try to present an honest new face of South Africa to the world.
The Ramaphosa I know will move carefully. He will make sure all the party votes are guaranteed in advance before he makes a final move on Zuma. But he will certainly move.
On that field in East London, I detected hope, a weary and realistic kind of hope. The ANC women listened to Ramaphosa promise to root out corruption and pursue those who had abused the good name of the republic.
Behind him Zuma listened, expressionless but surely counting the minutes before he could vanish into the silent security of his armoured limousine.
I have spent a lot of my life telling people to have faith in South Africa. I did it when many were predicting a racial bloodbath back in the 1980s, and again in the 1990s when negotiations between the ANC and the white state had broken down. I did it in the worst days of Zuma when the country staggered from one corruption scandal to another.
My faith had a lot to do with the nature of the people. They are eternally disputatious. Go to the smallest township civic meeting and you will find a willingness to argue and a determination that each should have his or her say that is unique in my experience of the world. This is not the kind of republic that can be overthrown by crooks.