Last week I went to Steers, a popular fast-food joint here in South Africa, to pick up some burgers for the family. When I got to the gas-station complex, there were several huge passenger buses. They were returning from the ANC's much-publicized rally that day in East London, a three-hour drive down the national highway from Mthatha. There were many people sporting bright yellow t-shirts with ANC president and national presidential candidate Jacob Zuma on the front, and the "ANC priorities" on the back.
I was probably already irritable because of the move to a new house we had just undertaken on that day (another story), but seeing these "priorities" really set me off. Where have these "priorities" been for the past 14 years (since freedom from the apartheid regime)?
Absent from this list of priorities was anything like "strengthening the military" or "building up the defense force". This might seem a good thing if it is at all likely that the ruling party will indeed forsake these unnamed "priorities" for their proposed ones. According to the brief historical record, however, the ANC government quickly subordinated a commitment to "priorities" such as rural development, education, and jobs for all to continue in the apartheid regime's pattern of massive defense expenditure.
Mark Gevisser, former president Thabo Mbeki's biographer, has posited that the ANC prioritized the military buildup in the early days of the democracy because the politicians were in part fearful of the military leaders. In exchange for loyalty and to avoid the potential rebellion of an unruly lot, the leaders of the party bowed to the military's demand to maintain/upgrade the strength of the force. This they did, for example, by purchasing costly German-made bombers, in what has come to be known in the South African press simply as "the arms deal." It is alleged that many key leaders, Mbeki and Zuma included, took bribes from the arms manufacturer in order to accept its tender over other competitors. Aside from any technical "corruption", however, the priority of arms over policies of human upliftment remains truly bankrupt.
It is also a lesson for us as we hope to see change in the administration of a nation. Though we refer to the American president, for example, as "the most powerful person in the world," there are other forces at work--forces which seek to co-opt and enslave people of high ideals and character.
It is a lesson which affirms the path of Christ who, when tempted to take power over all the kingdoms of the world, rejected the offer of the evil one to whom they had been given.
We also do well to truly remember Dr. King on this, the occasion of the holiday in his honor: a pastor who mobilized the power of people through "faith in the God who judges justly" (1 Pet. 2:23), not a commander-in-chief.