I must confess a certain sympathy with the Israelites here. I don’t blame them for feeling impatient with their wilderness wanderings. It reminds me a lot of our situation. In 1994 we really thought we’d arrived in the Promised Land, didn’t we? Yet in so many ways we are still muddling around in deserts, some the legacy of history and some of our own making. As we negotiate the hiccups and failures of democracy, I hear South Africans of every background sometime mutter: “It was better in the old days…”
I doubt that many really believe this. But the mistakes of policy, the tendency to blame failures on the past, and the growing stink of corruption in public life is enough to make even Moses blanch at times. Yet we should never, never imagine that the solution is a return to Egypt – whether under an old or a new pharaoh. Unlike the Israelites, we have an alternative: democracy.
As citizens of a democracy we have a right – a duty, Pope Francis reminds us – to vote for those who lead us. Parties offer us programmes and policies, and it is our duty to judge for ourselves what we consider best for us. We can choose to vote for the existing ruling party if we are happy with them; we can pressure the ruling party to change policies we don’t like and only then vote for them; or we can decide it’s time for someone new.
It’s a point of debate among political scientists: when does a society that undergoes democratisation (like South Africa) actually become a democracy? Some say that it’s when there have been four or five post-liberation elections. (If that’s so, we are now a ‘real democracy’). Others, and I tend to sympathise with this position, say that a real democracy is when the party of liberation loses an election and graciously hands over administration to the winner. If that’s the case, we may have to wait a bit…possibly until Jesus returns.
It’s a bit like the Israelites asking “When are we going to enter the promised land?”. In a sense they were already there when they crossed the Red Sea, but they couldn’t see it. Perhaps Moses could not see it either. But Joshua did. Do we have to wait for Joshua? Or will Moses regain his sense of direction?