“A leader is a dealer in hope.” Napoleon Bonaparte.

It is nearly 20 years since the dawn of democracy in South Africa and the most pressing question that I believe needs asking is not whether or not we have a good story to tell – we do. The more urgent question is do we have hope for the next 20 years?

You see in 1994 – the baked bean and kerosene lamp brigade aside – we were infused with almost supernatural levels of hope; we were buoyed up on a wave of international goodwill and our national pride was at fever pitch. We had the world’s most revered statesman at the helm and the world’s most beloved cleric making petition in the heavenlys on our behalf. We embodied hope.

Now hope is a very powerful thing. With hope anything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible. It can be argued that 1994 – and the ensuing 20 years – happened because we had hope that it would.

Psychologist Charles Snyder was one of the first developers of positive psychology and created his “hope theory” while on sabbatical from the University of Kansas. He observed people and interacted with them and through these observations came up with his own definition of hope: “Hope” he said; “is the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.” In layman’s terms, hope is the fuel that fires the engine of change; it is the oomph that converts invisible dreams into seen realities.

And in Mandela we had one of the greatest “dealers in hope” of all history. He outlined the vision, gave us a road-map and then supercharged us with hope that it was infinitely doable. There was no chance of failure because the sum of our collective hope was driving us towards the vision that had been created for us; a united nation.
Over the next 20 years the story unfolded and it was indeed a good story; institutionalised racism was abolished along with its degrading and humiliating laws and practices; the disenfranchised majority had their right to vote restored to them; the poorest of the poor received financial aid from government; murder rates began to come down; millions were given access to houses, water and electricity; we staged arguably the finest football World Cup in history and praise be to the Almighty we won the Rugby World Cup – twice!
But as we did all this the oddest thing was happening; hope was waning. Cinderella- like it seemed that the magic was fading, midnight was fast approaching and soon we would be left with nothing but the memories of an all-too-short flirtation with a prince called democracy.
What caused this gradual loss of hope? Was it simply natural attrition; the fact that we simply couldn’t go on operating at those heady levels of post 1994 hope? Or was there something more to it?

I believe we could still be riding the crest of that wave were it not for two factors:

Back to the Cinderella story, the magic was always going to run out – it was only ever a matter of time. It was up to Cinderella to make her impression on the prince so that the magic was no longer an external force but an internal reality. She did that. We haven’t yet. The Madiba Magic as we called it – aka hope – has gone and we are left staring out into the midnight sky, waiting for another saviour to return with more magic. The thing we have done least well over the past 20 years is not economic, political or social. It is quite simply that we – you and I – have failed to keep hope alive. We have failed to become leaders in our own circles; leaders who deal in hope. Instead we have immersed ourselves in cynicism, self-pity, negativity and criticism, effectively killing the magic.

The second factor that has killed the magic is that our political leaders have not dealt in hope either. They have dealt in lies, deceit, cover-ups, drugs, spin – you name it – everything but hope. And what robs citizens of a democracy of hope more than anything else is when political leaders consistently failing to pay back what they have stolen, apologise for the wrongs they have committed and resign from office when they are found guilty. Nothing destroys faith in democracy quicker and more irrevocably than a lack of accountability.

Hope will be restored when two things happen: when we decide to put leaders who are dealers in hope into positions of power and when each of us makes an intentional choice to become a dealer in hope.

Then the magic will return.

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.