As I’ve already mentioned, the Cosatu/SECTION27/Treatment Action Campaign conference in 2010 was the first time that I really noticed the depth of anger about corruption. At about the same time an investigative journalist, the late Mandy Rossouw, had uncovered and published the first evidence of massive state expenditure on the private homestead of President Zuma in the village of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal.
Over time “Nkandla”, as the scandal came to be known, grew to symbolise the corruption of the Jacob Zuma administration. Details emerged, drip by drip, of expenditure of over R250-million of public money. It was a slow-burn crisis. The media exposed it, the President laughed and made light of it in Parliament, the Public Protector investigated it. Then in March 2014 she issued her weighty report, Secure in Comfort. At that point the Executive and the ANC-controlled Parliament went into overdrive to cover up for Number 1.
In May 2015 – over a year later – Nathi Nhleko, the Minister of Police, told Parliament that a government investigation of the Public Protector’s report had contradicted its most damning findings and found that allegedly nonsecurity-related improvements were in fact security-related. The “investigation” decided that what she considered to be a swimming pool was in fact a “fire pool”, that the chicken run was a device to keep animals away from security systems and that the amphitheatre was an emergency assembly point.
#UniteAgainstCorruption was not born in the Birchwood Hotel. Instead it started in a bunker-like meeting room in the basement of the Numsa offices in central Johannesburg, where various strands of civil society met to weave the narrative for a new campaign. Present were church leaders such as the Anglican Bishop of Pretoria, Joe Seoka (whom I had first encountered at Wilgespruit in 1983); dying-hard socialists from the MWT (now called the Democratic Socialist Movement) still trying to push a sale of their Marxist newspaper, now renamed Izwi Labasebenzi; and social justice activists from TAC and Equal Education, people (like me) who have unhitched the quest for social justice from ideologies and moored it instead to the Constitution and the human rights it promises.
At times it feels as if the suffering public have resigned themselves to political profligacy. But in response to Nhleko, the outrage barometer had rocketed to record levels. It seemed that not all the blue waters of the fire pool were enough to douse public anger. Temperatures rose, talk radio stations buzzed at white heat, anger became tangible. Nkandla seemed to be the bridge too far. On the back of this wave the #UAC (as it became known) decided to organise a mass protest march to the Union Buildings, the seat of the Presidency. We dreamed of “a million” people marching. We compared the ANC’s corruption-denialism to Aids denialism, warning that it carried a similar price tag.
Although the issue was simple enough, the campaign was not. Right from the beginning there was haggling over the contents of a “Call to Action”. Social justice activists were looking for a language that could strike a chord with millions of angry people and excite them enough to join the planned marches. Marxist revolutionaries (their label, not mine) on the other hand felt the need to spice the “Call” with references to Lenin and the treachery of neoliberalism.
But we were all prepared to try. So between June and October 2015 the SECTION27 boardroom once more became a hub for efforts to unite civil society.
Emissaries were sent out to woo the Christian churches. On the 30th anniversary of the Kairos Declaration, a letter was written asking them to witness in corruption the need for a second “Kairos moment” – the point in 1985 when several Christian churches resolved that their theological teachings required that they take a public stand against apartheid. In a simple twist of fate the letter was hand-delivered to Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane, two of the founders of the UDF, at the famous Regina Mundi Church in Soweto.
After a meeting I had with the playwright Mike van Graan at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, artists were rallied and rediscovered their political voice. Over 600 artists, including such legendary writers as Zakes Mda and Njabulo Ndebele, endorsed the campaign, developing posters, poems, pamphlets and a short drama.
By such means civil society was discovering traditions last seen in the UDF. Student activists joined the daily meetings. Churches were back in the same pen as trade unions. NGOs were working alongside social movements of the poor. There was energy and intention. Something was happening…
There was much that was positive about the #UAC. It helped corruption to become a national talking point, debated on radio stations, dissected in the media. Civil society began to cajole business leaders (including Sipho Pityana) to take a stand on social issues. A request was submitted to Nedlac for a protected general strike.
But ultimately the campaign delivered less than we promised. The plan had always been that it should climax with mass marches, whose sheer numbers would announce the coming-out of a more united civil society. However, the marches were postponed several times, thus losing the momentum. On 30 September 5,000 people marched to the Union Buildings. In Cape Town about 7,000 marched to Parliament. On 14 October Numsa and other unions led a workers’ march through Johannesburg.
The marches were vibrant and energised. But there was no getting away from the fact that they were far smaller than we had hoped for.
There was a bright side! It was unprecedented to see so many civic leaders on a march that had been denounced by the ANC. We had set up a tent on the steps of the Union Buildings. In it you could see political-party leaders, including Julius Malema, Bantu Holomisa and Terror Lekota, trade-union leaders from all three federations and Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and many other brands of religious leader. Deride it as they would, the ANC could not ignore it, and the Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, came down to graciously accept the memo in the face of a rude and uncompromising roasting from Julius Malema who had stolen the stage moments before.
But a cold truth was that church leaders were present but not their flocks, trade-union leaders but not their members. Only a small number of citizens joined spontaneously. Why?
For me #UniteAgainstCorruption was a qualified success, a few more steps on the road to a more unified citizenry. Compared to Awethu! and PCAX the number of civil society organisations working with each other had increased. By October 2015 more people from more constituencies were haltingly defining their post-democracy vision, shaking off distrust and beginning to be a part of each others’ struggles.
Our own worst enemies
Two questions keep me awake at night.
How can it be that when so many people know what’s wrong with our country and the world – when there are so few people who defend the status quo – that we continue to careen down a path to destruction?
What holds us back from building organisations that will bring social justice and equality?
From experience I know that people’s power is built on trust. It’s built when people focus on winning a tangible good that will improve other people’s quality of life. And your own.
Paralysis occurs when people try to jump the possible in order to reach the impossible, to use other people’s desperation to try to win points in the game of politics. For such people politics is mostly a game of dethroning.
Paralysis is fomented by distrust, and we end up with “can’t dos” and doubt. It exists when people allow differences that have been superimposed on the human being, such as our class or race or nationality, to blind us to what we have in common.
Distrust foments paralysis. It turns activists into naysayers and doubting Thomases. Paralysis takes hold when people allow differences that have been superimposed on the human being, such as our class or race or nationality, to blind us to what we have in common.
One of the greatest frustrations in my efforts to help build civil society has been the debilitating distrust between socialists and those who now invoke a more pragmatic, results-driven approach to social justice. This is derided as “reformism”. The socialist wheat is sorted from the reformist chaff and the amount of wheat that remains is minuscule. At times meetings of socialists resemble an aviary of peacocks, each one out to fluff its feathers and incanting Hail Marys to Karl Marx.
Such experiences have made me believe that it is ideology which creates the fault lines that inhibit the convergence of people in a real united front for social justice.
I too am an anti-capitalist. But we socialists have failed. Let’s admit it, for many years we lost our grip on reality. We saw nothing strange in our compulsive need to cull quotes from the twentieth-century Lenin to include in pamphlets about twenty-first-century corruption. Simple struggles for fundamental human rights like access to water, health or education – struggles that can be won – are rerouted into conflicts over complex concepts like the fight against neoliberalism and capitalism. We need workable alternatives. We need to be able to fire-up hope.
We often lose battles because of the way in which we talk to other people. Words are so important. Do the words we choose alienate or inspire? Do they dull or drive? Do we come across as irritating salespeople for a flaky ideology or catalysts for change?
In 1946 a world-weary George Orwell wrote an essay he titled ‘Politics and the English Language’. Orwell lamented how ‘[o]rthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style’ and how ‘political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries … are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech’.
Let there be no doubt. Capitalism is a profoundly inefficient, immoral and dangerous economic system. Neoliberalism, through which we saw the almost complete unfettering of ‘the markets’ from restraint and regulation, was the logical progression of a world in which, in the early 1990s – capitalism appeared to have triumphed.
Make no mistake. Capitalism is an economic system that should have been controlled long ago.
That’s not at issue. What is at issue is that so many worthy leftist initiatives are condemned to stillbirth by their leaders’ desire to manipulate such campaigns to bolster alienating ideological claptrap, rather than to improve people’s life on earth. The truth is the poor already have plenty of churches to choose from as they contemplate heaven. What they don’t have is an organisation that has a realistic prospect of changing life on Earth.
The Comrades Marathon between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg has been run almost every year since 1921 and is one of the landmarks of South African society. I first ran it in 1996 and since then have run it another 16 more times. It has taught me that when you are on a long-distance race you measure success not just by when – or even whether – you cross the finish line. You attach equal weight to the arduous work that goes into the effort. There are moments of light, and moments of darkness, moments where you enjoy human company and solidarity and moments when you are alone. You need emotional as well as physical fitness.
Our quest is also an ultramarathon. It started hundreds of years ago. Social justice will not be achieved in a year. Trying to put humanity back on a path to equality and dignity for all is an incremental process. Some of my friends called the anti-corruption marches a failure. I saw them as just one more mile on that journey.
Twenty-three years have elapsed since we won freedom. Today people whose dreams have been realised exist side by side with others whose dreams are … dreams. A stark contrast exists between legal equality and lived inequality. The cheek-by-jowl lives of ultrarich and ultrapoor have created a society that is highly combustible. South Africa erupts like a rapid-fire volcano. At the moment most of its eruptions are spectacular, some beautiful. Some reveal the latent energy in our people, others our dormant creativity. Up to this point people have been demonstrating their desire for change by engaging in strikes, service-delivery protests and student rebellions. They challenge issues from racism to neocolonialism and fee increases. In contrast to greyer climes with greyer peoples, ours remains a mobilised, vibrant people. We are a country in flux, a country remaking its identity. DM
In other news...
South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.
On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.
And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.
However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.
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The Pentagon has twice as many bathrooms than necessary due to segregation being in force when it was constructed.