Last year I was privileged to act as the respondent to Minister Pravin Gordhan when he delivered his powerful lecture here. Then, the rage against State Capture was probably at its highest level and there was a feeling that we had completely lost our way. How would we ever make our way back? We’re obviously not out of the woods yet but thankfully, a lot has happened in a year. We have a new President whose most important tasks are ridding our institutions of corruption and trying to fix the economy – desperate and difficult work. State Capture, after all, has consequences.
This is an edited version of the speech delivered by Judith February at the annual Kathrada Lecture held on Saturday.
A lesson from Antiquity
Given where we find ourselves, sometimes because it’s hard to be hopeful, it is helpful to look back before looking forward, to gain some perspective on our current situation. Perspective is often in short supply in our public discourse. Because I find lessons from antiquity helpful, I would suggest that looking back to the late Roman Republic might help us in examining our current reality: It was in 54 BC when the Roman orator and lawyer Cicero lamented the state of the Republic:
‘But though the Republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time has not only neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines.’ – Cicero, De Republica 5.1.2
Written between 54 and 51 BC, Cicero’s De Republica was part lament for the state of the Roman Republic and part discussion of forms of government and justice. At that time, the Romans were involved in several wars abroad. Caesar was conducting his campaigns in Gaul, citizens were rioting and, by 49 BC, Caesar would cross the Rubicon and be made dictator for life in 44 BC.
The story of the Late Roman Republic is thus in essence a tragic one. The decay Cicero consistently speaks of eventually led to its demise and Augustus became the emperor with complete control of the state. While the Roman Republic was organised very differently from what we might imagine as a modern constitutional arrangement, there may well be some lessons from history for modern-day constitutional democracies and state decline, not least of all our own.
The Roman constitution was not something that was clear-cut and ‘designed for purpose’ in the manner of modern-day constitutions; it evolved according to the needs of the day. The roots of the Roman Republic were in its founder, Romulus. This transitioned to kingship, ending in the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud in 509 BC and leading to a mixture of monarchy and aristocracy following the secession of the plebeians in 493 BC. This in turn led to arrangements containing some ‘democratic’ elements with the establishment of the senate and the office of consul.
As decades wore on, the Roman Republic was equally vulnerable to corruption, abuse of power, patronage, the use of state resources for private gain and, indeed, decline.
Patronage and its consequences are nothing new. In Cicero’s world, amicitia (“friendship”, between those in power and others) was a near institution and what started out as part of the fabric of Roman life quickly became sullied by corruption and abuse of the patron-client relationship. The nobility controlled political institutions through their networks of friends and clients. “Amicitia became a weapon of politics, not a sentiment based on congeniality.”
And Roman friendships continually evolved as a “web of expectations and obligations”, creating an environment ripe for abuse, specifically during the period of Rome’s expansion abroad that created many opportunities for such misuse of patronage.
Does this sound familiar? The lessons of Cicero’s lament for the decay and decline of the Late Republic should not be lost on us.
Tracing South Africa’s journey to democracy, we can find almost as many detours before we arrived at 1994 and our negotiated settlement. That settlement was flawed, yet it brought civil and political rights if not the economic emancipation that many hoped for.
Cicero’s lament for the “already fading” colours of the Republic may be our lament for the state of our democracy in the aftermath of the Zuma years. How do we in this context “renew the colours” of our Constitution and take care to “preserve its configurations” and “general outlines”?
Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian political theorist whose seminal work, On the post-colony, continues to define much of the debate around the characteristics of post-colonial Africa, calls this a “negative moment” in our history. Yet in a sense, the negative moment is a culmination of sorts. A culmination of the Zuma years that were marked by a lack of openness and transparency, by increased securitisation of the state and marked inequality, economic paralysis, intolerance as well as the abuse of democratic institutions.
As we sit here, the economic state we are in is, frankly, a crisis.
The latest numbers, for the second quarter of this year, show that over 6 million people are unemployed. This reflects an unemployment rate of 27.2%. That’s the official rate. If we factor in those who have given up looking for work, in other words, the so-called expanded definition, the number of unemployed comes to a staggering 37.2%.
Youth unemployment is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa at 52%, against average for the region of 11%.
In addition, according to the latest Afrobarometer statistics, trust in politicians is low – 62% of SA citizens do NOT trust their politicians. Given the daily news of corruption and long-running state capture narrative, one should not be surprised. 61% of South Africans do NOT trust local government – in general. This is also to be expected, as this tier of government appears perpetually overwhelmed by a combination of the scale of its responsibilities and the paucity of its capacity – and corruption of course.
Deep scarring inequality, poor governance, mismanagement and corruption have all contributed to the lack of “voice” many South Africans feel. In the Constitution, “voice” is rendered as “participatory democracy”. This concept is a golden thread that runs through the constitution. It is the notion that we do not simply vote every five years, but are called to be active citizens. The society that the constitution envisages is one in which ongoing interaction between citizens and elected representatives steers the course of governance. The reality does, of course, not always match the aspiration.
South Africans have thus sought to find “voice” in different ways.
We have a strong “protest culture” and more recently protests have become a part of the quotidian.
Our country has much which we are inured to. That our activism often turns violent limits the prospects of changing our society. We must challenge each other to find more constructive ways of voicing discontent. We saw protests in Tshwane ahead of the 2016 local government elections which were particularly debilitating and the ‘hashtag’ #FeesMustFall movement. These were very different protest actions but showed one thing clearly: how much the ANC-led government had lost control of the public debate and discourse and how disconnected it was from the youth and also its core constituencies in places like Tshwane. In small towns citizens repeatedly talk of feeling as if they are “watching a passing show” and voice frustration at obstacles to their participation in the economy of the country.
Our social fabric also continues to fray as a result – we know that this is a country that can break our hearts into a million pieces. There are too many examples to mention.
The palpable violence of poverty and exclusion is experienced by our country’s most vulnerable citizens as part of their daily lives. A few stand out. The 2014 death of five-year-old Michael Komape, who fell into a pit latrine at school and drowned, and the Life Esidimeni tragedy, which saw over 100 people die after the Gauteng Health Department moved them from existing care facilities to others run by NGOs, stand out as the most brutal examples of the neglect of the Zuma years, alongside the Marikana massacre of mineworkers by police in 2012.
As Michael’s father, James Komape, said in his testimony to the Limpopo High Court in the civil matter: “They [the state] should have helped. My son was going to school. I did not send him to die.”
Where was the political leadership? Where was the politicians’ shame at what had happened and where was their desire to make amends? Instead, the state fought back against the most vulnerable of families and doubled their pain by continuing to defend itself in protracted litigation.
Similarly, the Life Esidimeni tragedy was another shocking manifestation of a callous state. The facts are well known to us.
The stories are heart-wrenching. Some patients were loaded onto the backs of open vans as they were being transferred to the new facilities that were ill-equipped to deal with the patients assigned to them.
The lack of care manifests itself across our country daily. Enter almost any government building for an interaction with the state and we confront snaking queues of people, standing for hours. Mostly, the service is slow and indifferent.
The Komape and Life Esidimeni cases show a state that had become so arrogant, so unmoored from its principles, that it was prepared to deny the most vulnerable in our society their basic rights. This form of violence – there is no other word for it– against the poor creates even greater marginalisation and exclusion from the rest of society for mostly black South Africans.
We are better than this.
In recent weeks we have experienced the “drip-drip” effect of the Zondo Commission into State Capture. What we have heard has been deeply disappointing, especially the most recent testimony by (now former) finance minister Nhlanhla Nene which led to his dramatic exit, but it is shining a light in very dark places and providing citizens with crucial information about the Zuma years, the corruption prevalent and the machinations of the various players. It has been sobering to say the least, yet it has also prompted us as South Africans to reflect on the power of a free media and the Constitutional right to information.
The question which remains open, of course, is whether or not there will be prosecutions once the Zondo commission has done its work. That in turn will depend on who the next NDPP will be. This will probably be the most crucial appointment of the Ramaphosa presidency. One senses that he simply must get this one right.
Keeping the dream in sight
As South Africans we do tend to navel-gaze, be pre-occupied with our plight and expect all our challenges to be solved immediately. Yet, the reality is that if we want to salvage our constitutional democracy, which is bruised and battered but definitely still standing, then we need to take The Long View. This does not come easily in a world in need of quick fixes and where 24-hour social media demands immediate solutions. Yet that is where we are at the moment. In a world with neither obvious heroes nor villains, but mostly shades of grey, we have to stay focused on the ‘long game’.
When Ramaphosa took office he promised a “New Dawn”. Of course even he knew that this was going to be an uphill battle. Ramaphosa has inherited a veritable “hot mess”.
That includes the capture of many of our democratic institutions, bankrupt state-owned enterprises and state coffers that are now virtually bare. SARS, tells the story of a SARS Commissioner who seems to have “gone rogue”…
And so, no matter how many times Ramaphosa summons our better angels and encourages us to say “Thuma mina!” we all knew it would be a tough ask to rebuild our country’s economy and the social compact which is dangerously fraying at the seams.
We are desperate for quick wins and game-changing outcomes. At the 100-day mark of the Ramaphosa Presidency, the media and others were starting to feel the urge to somehow measure it.
This is by no means unique to South Africa and any scan of Twitter and other social media from around the world is proof of this. News has barely broken and swift reaction is required as a matter of course. Our public discourse, and indeed discourse around the world, could do with that rare commodity – restraint. As we try to grapple with race, land and our triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty, how to change the public spaces and the nature of life along our highways and byways, we need to also restrain ourselves from the immediacy of the “quick fix”. We need to somehow seek ways to balance both affect and reason in the public debate.
Easy slogans about decolonisation, white monopoly capital, taking back the land and white tears, will only lead to the cul-de-sac of thought we have seen thus far.
Track the Presidency we must, hold Ramaphosa to account we must, yet there is a rather more urgent need to take a long view on our economic recovery as well as on the rebuilding of this democracy. It may not be popular and it may not satisfy the slogan-filled politics of populism that, say, Julius Malema espouses, but it is necessary if we are to build a democracy and an economy that are truly inclusive.
Democracy is only ever as strong as the people who populate democratic institutions and the ability of those individuals who lead them to adhere to constitutional norms and values – and our willingness to defend the Constitution.
The Next Struggle: Finding the Constitution again
Undergirding the values of the Constitution is therefore the next struggle we face. It is one that pits those who would destroy the state for their own narrow gain directly against those who seek to build a country where those in power are accountable and responsive to the citizenry.
Several challenges remain as we seek to entrench rights and indeed the supremacy of what is increasingly becoming contested terrain – the Constitution itself. Part of this is political opportunism, but part of it is also our failure (collectively) to ensure that there is proper constitutional education and that the language of rights becomes more popularised.
Recently, it has become fashionable to question the 1994 constitutional / negotiated settlement and its outcome. We thus need to go back to the very beginning.
The starting point for me is always the Constitution.
It represents the framework around which everything else pivots. Despite the criticism of the Constitution – it has been much-maligned even by the very ANC that fought for its adoption and was deeply involved in its writing process of course – to me it remains the lodestar, the aspirational document our Founding Fathers and Mothers intended. It may have faults but it is in essence aspirational, transformational and provides a broad framework for bringing about socio-economic equality. But, any Constitution can only be as effective as the men and women who are charged with implementing the country’s rules as well as create the culture of accountability the Constitution demands.
That we have strayed so far from this ideal and that inequality has risen so dramatically is not the fault of the Constitution. It has not failed us in providing the necessary space for transformation and the guidelines for a state which is accountable. Accountability means that government is responsive to the interests of the whole society – what Aristotle called the common good – rather than to its own narrow self-interest. Accountability is more than simply a procedural matter, it must be substantive too. It needs to make a real difference. In the unanimous judgment of the Constitutional Court in the Nkandla matter, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng eloquently outlined what kind of state the Constitution envisaged.
He starts by outlining how South Africa adopted “accountability, the rule of law, and the supremacy of the Constitution”. He goes on to state how this applies to public representatives, the President in particular, when he says,
“For this reason, public office-bearers ignore their constitutional obligations at their peril. This is so because constitutionalism, accountability and the rule of law constitute the sharp and mighty sword that stands ready to chop the ugly head of impunity off its stiffened neck.”
This vivid language has come to pepper Mogoeng’s judgments and is a stark reminder of the promise of the Constitution and the aspects of it still unfulfilled.
During the #FeesMustFall protests, and beyond, the argument against the Constitution was made repeatedly, with passion and fervour. Somehow the Constitution has been scapegoated in the process.
The arguments against the Constitution as I have heard them made, have gone something like this:
White people had everything, black people entered a compromise so whites could keep just about everything, and hand black people scraps off the table.
It’s a sloppy analysis that does not take into account the global and political context of the time sketched above and does not truly engage with many of the deeply progressive Constitutional Court judgments which have been handed down since 1996. Yet, it can be compelling in a populist way – and especially in a society trying (still) as Van Zyl Slabbert said even back in the 1980s, was “waiting to become”.
Former Constitutional Court Judge and Struggle stalwart Albie Sachs however offers a powerful counter-narrative to some of the anti-Constitution rhetoric. As a lawyer, I see its logic and prefer it. Such counter-narratives from one of the “Founding Fathers” are crucial if we are to have a reasoned debate about the past, present and future. He tells of the internal debate within the ANC, and how reason prevailed and the ANC under the astute and principled leadership of OR Tambo supported the concept of a Bill of Rights when the moment arose. Tambo was set upon constitutionalising aspects of the struggle, and in Sachs’s words, “learning from every source” and “widening the embrace” of the ANC as a movement, and in its thinking. Tambo’s (and the ANC’s) strategic position on the Bill of Rights was that it would exist to “protect everyone”, Black and White, rich and poor and in Sachs’s words, that the Constitution itself was needed as protection against arbitrariness by all leaders and indeed, to be used “against ourselves”. That was 1988.
Admittedly, it’s often difficult to hear people like Sachs and their reasonableness above the noise of ‘the now’. The Constitutional Court and our Constitution were, after all, about trying to accommodate a diversity of viewpoints and should be the starting point of our deliberations on difficult questions of race and transformation. It might not provide the answers but it ought to act as a guide. It would therefore be a pity if, in the questioning of the negotiated settlement, the Constitution becomes collateral damage.
It is crucial to understand how we arrived at the Constitution and why it is crucial that we committed to it as the bedrock of our society.
What is often forgotten is the road we have travelled and the respect we need to have for those early, difficult decisions that Mandela and the ANC had to make as South Africa stared down the edge of the abyss. South Africa in 2018 is a markedly different place to what it was in 1988. This difficult political and social moment, requires measured interventions from leaders across society if we are to change the status quo, yet preserve that which the Constitution commits us to; dignity and equality for all. And so, in the midst of these are arguments that are often confused dialogue and sometimes even violence, burning and the calls for “everything to fall”. Yet, if something falls, what rises in its place? And if things burn, who will rebuild?
These are questions that have not yet been fully answered.
Finding our way
Given the challenges of the present, where exactly should our focus lie in building a post-Zuma democracy? A democracy in which we enable citizens to build popular, accountable and sustainable self-government and enjoy equality with each other in governance processes.
Our society, now more than ever, is in need of critical voices on every front as it continues the battle to find its soul. We will need critical voices if we are to engage in debates about a ‘post-Zuma world’ and the kind of leadership South Africa needs. How do we forge a society in which we can talk honestly about race, class and other fault-lines? How does society raise up leaders amongst us, capable of what Njabulo Ndebele once called “counterintuitive leadership”? This takes us beyond the ANC and Ramaphosa and any other political party. It is re-imagining a quite different South Africa.
There are a number of areas that I believe need special attention if we are to sustain the momentum and take advantage of the small window of opportunity which the Ramaphosa presidency presents.
We are in many ways finding our collective voice again. The one thing that Ahmed Kathrada would not have wanted is for us to throw our hands up in the air and give up. I would argue that it’s not who we are at all. If my work at Idasa and elsewhere in democracy-building has shown anything, it is that democracy is a journey not an event. But there are also some key ingredients – as we think, yes, we should – of a post-Zuma world. Where should our focus lie in building this democracy?
Education, education, education: Clearly, post-apartheid South Africa’s greatest failure has been education despite the fact that we have spent more on education as a proportion of GDP than on any other area. Too many curriculum changes, errant teachers and the loss of experienced ones, weak administration and an insufficient embedding of the culture of learning, have hampered our ability to educate the next generation for the economic realities of today and tomorrow.
Too many South African children simply drop out of school before reaching matric and the annual ‘puff’ surrounding the matric pass rate is just that – puff, when only 28% of those who passed are able to reach university. Education is a means of lifting people out of poverty and providing a ‘way out’ of desperate situations. In a post-1994 country based on a flawed notion of empowerment, education has often taken the back seat in a national discourse that prizes crass wealth accumulation above the emancipatory power of a decent education.
Our post-1994 world has been littered with politicians driving German SUVs and a form of empowerment which has not preferred skill or education but instead political proximity. President Zuma mocked ‘clever blacks’ and seemed comfortable with his ignorance about basic economics. We will also need further investment and serious commitment to proper intellectual pursuit. Education and knowledge are the cornerstones of any society seeking to build a culture of democracy; we need teachers in classrooms, better infrastructure, proper leadership/ principals who can lead and corruption dealt with – SADTU/ buying posts still remains unresolved. But we also need to focus on enhancing skills, vocational training, FET colleges and empowering girls to enter university and focus on language, maths and science. The diagnosis has been done – but we need the will to make this happen.
Constitutional education: What is the Constitution? What is its purpose? How does it provide the checks and balances on power and give rise to a culture of accountability on top of the fine words and institutions? How did we get here? And whose rights are protected – in Chapter 2 of the Constitution – what does it mean to say “socio-economic rights are justiciable?” and what were the cases brought before the court which protected the rights of the most vulnerable in our society?
The culture of accountability – that there are consequences for actions by those who are elected – is intrinsic to the constitutional culture, or should be. Deference to authority is not. Respect, yes. Deference to power, no. There has been too much of that in post-1994 South Africa. From the seemingly trivial, such as Ministers arriving late for functions, to the dire, as in the recent behaviour of Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba – surely they are both unfit for office and must go? Our memories of Zuma laughing it off are still fresh and raw.
The economy: The economy must be fixed. We need to create sufficient trust between the economic players based on an understanding that a fair wage, a proper skills base, artisanships and entrepreneurship should be supported. Some form of shared sacrifice is necessary to deal with the ravages of the past. We may have to look seriously at what some have called an “economic CODESA” to deal with unemployment, poverty and inequality, our stubborn triple challenge.
According to the World Bank report released in April and discussed earlier, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The report lists 149 countries and covers the period 2006–2015.
Apartheid’s stubborn legacy endures. World Bank South African director Paul Noumba Um said: “South Africa has a dual economy where on the one hand is a small high-skilled‚ high-productivity economy and on the other hand‚ a large low-skilled‚ low-productivity one.”
Given the intractable situation, government will have to pay attention to certain key areas of the economy. In an environment in which Ramaphosa has to focus on key issues of corruption and holding the state together, retaining a focus on the big picture will be crucial. Ramaphosa has already launched the government’s YES (Youth Employment Service) programme aimed at addressing youth unemployment and providing youth with some level of skills.
The move recognises that skills development and encouraging and supporting entrepreneurship are crucial if the government is to make even the slightest dent in the unemployment rate. For all this to happen, the relationship between government, business and labour will need to strengthen. Much of the trust was broken during the Zuma years but all indications are that business is prepared to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, as Alan Hirsch, director of the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice at UCT, reminds us, “getting to serious, inclusive economic growth is going to demand a great deal of work by skilled policy makers working within effective social partnership agreements”. Hirsch goes on to say that “policy certainty is needed about mining, land and black economic empowerment to encourage new investment”. Small business is also a crucial cog in the wheel of the economy.
Much of the red tape surrounding small business creation will need to be cut and the ministry of Small Business Development will need to be more efficient in spending the money allocated to it. In 2017, Minister Lindiwe Zulu failed to spend R140–million of her budget while simultaneously asking for a bigger one. Needless to say, education is crucial to building a functional and thriving economy. However, as discussed above, it requires a long-term commitment from business, unions and the state itself.
Connecting the dots via a free and independent media: Understanding corruption, what it means and how it links to people’s lives – these are all important aspects of aspects of active citizenship. Sometimes, it seems that we are willing to overlook deviant behaviour because it is perpetrated by someone we admire, or someone who holds the correct ideological position, or someone who is associated with the appropriate faction. None of this is consequence free. It is important that these connections are clearly understood: how does a tender awarded to a politician or one of his or her family members manifest in the collapse of service and to the living conditions of the poorest members of society? This information needs to be popularised and disseminated widely if it is to have maximum impact.
Leadership: it’s often unfashionable to call for leadership as it’s seen as citizens abdicating responsibilities to men and women who “know better”. But what the recent past has shown is that where there is a lack of leadership or destructive leadership, it has deep consequences for the future.
I would argue that the vacuum of leadership in South Africa has exacerbated the dire socio-economic situation we are in and almost crippled the ability of our society to deal constructively with its challenges. As Noami Klein says, “Politics hates a vacuum.” Into the vacuum oft-times anything and everything falls. Fear or hate moves in – or sometimes simply misunderstanding – and in its worst form, hate, ignorance and violence. So in these times of crisis – especially during these times of crisis – we must therefore keep on making the arguments for greater political accountability and transparency. And also, for better leadership and active citizenship.
What are our common values and ideals and how do we protect and defend those? Think back to the SARFU court case, where Mandela testified. That Mandela was prepared to place himself in such a position of scrutiny was a singular act of leadership. It not only showed his commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution, but was also a visible reminder that no one, not even the president, was above the law. That was Mandela the constitutionalist and also Mandela the leader.
Or Mandela going on television to call for calm at the time of Chris Hani’s murder – who can forget that? Or Pravin Gordhan at the MTBPS a couple of years ago, meeting protesting students.
Over the past decade, we have suffered a lack of leadership and a recklessness which has dangerous consequences for our society as a whole – things burn and ‘fall’ with no wisdom as to what happens next. Words are also used far too carelessly when a vacuum of leadership exists.
But it’s not only in the state, that we need to be brave enough to speak proverbial truth to power. It is in business and civil society too. Equally, as in government, those who are charlatans sit amongst us in business and in our think tanks and NGOs. They are not exempt from the lies and deception, it’s all of our duty to recognise it when we see it.
Active and engaged citizens: These are the ordinary people who question and who do the WORK of democracy wherever they find themselves. That quiet work goes on every day in our country despite the excesses of many of those in power. It responds to circumstances and necessity often in the most creative of ways. But it also requires a thoughtfulness on the part of each of us, how we respond and when we do, to what we see around us.
Imagining the future: active citizens and civic engagement
Transformation is a tired and over-used word in South Africa. It is often used as a proxy to advance narrow political interests. Yet, the work (and it IS work) of transforming a society needs to be done with care and has been described by former Chief Justice Pius Langa in his essay, ‘Transformative constitutionalism’ as follows:
‘Transformation is a permanent ideal, a way of looking at the world that creates a space in which dialogue and contestation are truly possible, in which new ways of being are constantly explored and created, accepted and rejected and in which change is unpredictable but the idea of change is constant.
“This is perhaps the ultimate vision of a transformative Constitution. ……. It envisions a society that will always be open to change and contestation, a society that will always be defined by transformation.”
Transformation is often difficult because we are weighed down by the anger of both the past and the present, though in different ways.
Our dialogue is brittle and blame is apportioned readily and angrily. We seem not to listen; we simply turn up the volume and out-shout the other. It is difficult to have a debate on solutions for the future in this context.
Rhodes university academic, Anthea Garman, says, “South Africa is going through a moment of quite powerful rupture. This rupture is not so much with the apartheid of colonial past, as much as with the immediate democratic past which has failed to deliver on its promises of equality for all and which has its own lack of credible rupture with the apartheid past.”
Accountability is hard also because there is a trust deficit created by our past. “The past” lies between us in every debate about race and class and in every disagreement about structural inequality and an economy built on cheap labour. It hampers our ability to find creative solutions.
The lack of accountability for past wrongs by those within the apartheid regime has left discomfort in the present, the danger of which is illustrated by Antjie Krog’s extraordinary poem Country of grief and grace:
but if the old is not guilty
does not confess
then of course the new can also not be guilty
nor be held accountable if it repeats the old
(things may then continue as before but in a different shade)
And so transition is indeed a process: ongoing, difficult, messy and uncomfortable.
It is clear that the ANC alone – some might say cannot at all – cannot fix it, then citizens must; WE must – divided as we are. It will take a mammoth collective effort from business, civil society and communities to rise up and speak out against the inaction fuelled by those who would consign our country to the dustbin of corrupt politics. It is not too late to do so.
Brave men and women have spoken up. Who can forget Sipho Pityana’s eloquent address at the funeral of Makhenkesi Stofile or the Omar family’s refusal to be associated with a pro-Zuma march? Or the stalwarts of the ANC speaking out at Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral? These moments were full of courage.
There are what I call green shoots and we should be working hard to support initiatives aimed at greater government accountability – not only for to banish the venality associated with Jacob Zuma. Zuma has fallen, but it’s not enough.
Citizen activism has been an important, probably decisive, defender of South Africa’s democracy and constitutional order. This has been seen in the protests against secrecy, against the venal use of apartheid-era legislation, such as the National Key Points Act, in pushing for transparency on matters such as party funding, in protesting against state capture – and in thousands of smaller, typically unrecorded assertions of the right of citizens to be taken seriously when faced with official arrogance, dishonesty or indifference.
As is evident, it has been strong, open media and robust civil society organisations that have stood between us and the most egregious breaches of our Constitution. The civil society groups are too numerous to mention but I think of the Right2Know campaign and its dogged pursuit to prevent the securitisation of the state; Black Sash, which has fought a valiant campaign against corruption within Sassa; and SECTION27, which continues to fight for the rights of the vulnerable.
We can take deep comfort in this.
And so, the question we have to ask is, “what is the work for us to do?” That is both an individual and collective question for each one of us as we try to create a world which is more just and more equal.
Barack Obama in his final speech to the UN was right when he said:
“It turns out building accountable institutions is hard work – the work of GENERATIONS. The gains are often fragile. Sometimes we take one step forward and then two steps back. So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully, because both the facts and history, I believe, are on our side. That doesn’t mean democracies are without flaws. It does mean that the cure for what ails our democracies is greater engagement by our citizens – not less.”
American activist and academic Harry Boyte has worked extensively on re-imagining the civic space and understanding how societies can move towards a more citizen-centred politics.
He starts from the premise of “respectful conversations” that shift the centre of politics away from politicians.
Essentially, Boyte argues for a new kind of (citizen) politics that centres around “negotiating a common life”. The creation of so-called free spaces is essential to the notion of citizens organising themselves. Boyte, together with his colleague Sara Evans, relies on the model at work in 1960s America. During the civil rights movement, civic spaces were re-imagined in venues ranging from churches to beauty parlours. Boyte champions the notion of broad-based community organising in colleges and other spaces with citizens as ‘co-creators’ with the state and not simply voting fodder.
At present, protest action in South Africa is further fuelled by the poor who feel they have been forgotten by those in power once an election has come and gone. Citizens need to develop a sense of agency that moves beyond the protest. This requires sustained and systematic forms of mobilisation by citizens, whether in small community groups or larger ones.
Unfortunately, citizenship today is largely passive: citizens ‘receive’ government services and are bestowed rights.
“The default of consumer culture,” Boyte says, “is that people ask what they can get, rather than thinking about what they could build, in terms of common resources.”
Are South Africans mature enough to do what Boyte suggests and “work across differences to solve common problems, advance justice, and create community wealth, from schools, public spaces, libraries and local businesses, to art, music and healthy lifestyles …”? In the examples he cites in educational spaces, teams of young people worked on “real world issues” such as “campaigns against bullying, sexual harassment, racism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence, to building playgrounds, championing healthy lifestyles, and making curriculum changes”.
In South Africa, Equal Education has done similar work with students, governing bodies, school management and parents aimed at creating safer school environments, ensuring the state develops norms and standards around educational infrastructure, and demanding transport to and from school for children living far away from the nearest school. Regrettably, the organisation itself has come under intense scrutiny lately – for all the wrong reasons. The allegations also raised serious questions about the accountability of civil society organisations and their own commitment to transparency and openness.
Equal Education’s localised initiatives have been possible largely because of the mobilisation of students and parents. It is a model worth extending to other areas of socio-economic development and where the state has abdicated its responsibilities. We can build our communities as spaces to which we have an attachment and in which we would like to see change. We all have a stake in the future of such places to live and work. It takes a shared vision and is best cultivated at local level before moving to the national level where accountability is demanded on different issues.
In a South African context we can see where such ‘creative citizenship’ (co-creation with the state) could take us. It would go beyond passive citizenship and the mere demanding of rights towards meaningful interaction between citizens and their public representatives. Our Constitution champions ‘public participation’ but too often that participation is shallow and technocratic and does not facilitate an ongoing conversation between citizens and elected representatives. Is there any wonder that ‘burning’ has become commonplace?
In the #FeesMustFall movement there were nascent signs of our ability to build the kinds of circles of learning and meaning within universities that are needed for us to talk about decolonisation and other areas of concern. But those circles need to become more inclusive to reap real benefits. They also need to be led with increased thoughtfulness because changing curricula cannot be the sole domain of a few.
Right2Know has also pursued successful campaigns over several years regarding the cost of mobile telephone data. Their campaign, #DataMustFall, has mobilised the poor in communities where the mobile phone has become a crucial way of communication but also for the transferring of remittances and other daily tasks. The “right to communicate” has thus been reframed as a human right.
However, more needs to be done in terms of moving towards a broader, more liberating notion of citizenship as “work” and as co-creating with the state. For that to happen, civic education regarding the rights and responsibilities in the Constitution must take place in schools and other places of learning.
All sectors of society need to be part of re-imagining civic life, including business, which is a key actor. As the World Economic Forum argues, companies need to see the benefits of “defending civic space”, which includes ‘the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest against failings and corruption’. In a 2017 World Economic Forum report, the “fraying rule of law and declining civic freedoms” have become a major global risk for companies. In South Africa this will mean that business too recreates its role as citizen to operate ethically regarding, inter alia, workers’ rights, occupational safety, transparent tender processes as well as executive pay.
In South Africa, Marikana stands out as an example in the mining industry where a company engaged in unsustainable and unethical practices in the way in which employees were both paid and housed. Steinhoff is another. But, as the World Economic Forum report points out, it is not only business, but civil society that needs to build pathways between them to protect human rights and find solutions to the challenges faced.
Ramaphosa has committed his government to re-establishing the social compact between government, business and labour.
But we have to do more to ensure that linkages between government, business, civil society and citizen groups are strengthened in order to work collectively towards a society that is more just and less unequal. These sectors can no longer work in isolation and it will mean combining resources and expertise, where appropriate. This not only envisages academic Harry Boyte’s notion of democratic “co-creation” with the state but, also leads to a society that is more resilient in dealing with the turbulence that comes along with living in a deeply unequal society.
In South Africa, trust has broken down not only between individuals but between sectors. Regaining some of the trust at least will take time and effort. The future of South Africa is both an individual and a collective challenge. Even with the recent change of leadership in South Africa, many of us feel as if we are in a very particular time of global and local tension. Yet we have a window of opportunity, a second chance, which calls for the very opposite of despair, for greater mobilisation and the true awakening of citizen activism for progressive values and corruption-free societies to thrive. As Cody Keenan wrote in his recent essay on the #Resist movement in the United States: “History is made every day by the hopeful.” Or as Adrienne Rich has written:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
And so, despite the complexity of the present and the future, I believe that a degree of hope still glimmers for us here at the southernmost tip of Africa – the place of the second chance.
But there is much work to be done – but for that the centre has to hold. DM
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