25 Years of Democracy: Keeping the train on track
Societies owe it to themselves to be introspective; to ask disconcerting questions, take stock of the past and present, and reimagine the future. This is true now for South Africans as we make a passage through a quarter of a century since the first inclusive national elections in April 1994.
Speaking at the recent 25 Years of Democracy Conference held at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), President Cyril Ramaphosa remarked: “We have to ask ourselves very profound and tough questions about our democracy beyond holding regular, free and fair elections and strengthening public institutions.”
The conference did indeed create space for evidence-based discourse away from “the tyranny of the sound bites” characteristic of election campaigns and intraparty elections, as described in his opening remarks by co-convener of the conference, Joel Netshitenzhe of Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra).
The conference was attended by academics, researchers, students, government, unions, members of the Fourth Estate, business, professionals, civil society and the general public. This mosaic of participants underscored the importance of collaboration among various roleplayers in searching for solutions to South Africa’s most pressing challenges. It affirmed the adage that no single sector of society holds the monopoly of solutions to what confronts us, and that innovation and resolution can only flow from having all hands, minds and perspectives on deck.
The conference focused participants’ energies on macrosocial aspects such as identity, social mobility, income dynamics and social activism, or what Netshitenzhe summed up as “the macrosocial impact of impacts”.
Emphasising the centrality of universities and think tanks in shaping ideas that influence public policy, President Ramaphosa argued: “Research and academic institutions have a critical role to play in advising government, in providing the necessary data that informs our planning.”
The president reiterated that his is an ideational administration, not averse to critique and supportive of knowledge that contributes to the resolution of societal challenges.
“The role of the public intellectual goes beyond speaking truth to power, important as that may be. It is about providing social analysis that challenges the status quo, that interrogates the influence of vested interests in public life, and that is concerned with the production and dissemination of knowledge that is interventionist by nature,” he observed.
UJ Vice-Chancellor, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, the co-convener of the conference and leading intellectual on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), argued that as we look back into the past 25 years, we should remember that the “post-work era” will see the world of work shrink.
Automation will, in his view, render humans redundant in production as machines come to dominate mass production at lower costs. This, he argued, will further complicate our inequality predicament given its impact on jobs. The call, therefore, is for the country to look into the future by skilling its citizens at a breathtaking pace and to support innovation so that we take full advantage of 4IR.
This futuristic outlook should involve the civil service accelerating efforts to become professional, innovative and accountable. This includes having committed teachers and pupils who don’t miss classes.
The breakdown of discipline experienced in many sectors, Prof Marwala lamented, is inimical to South Africa’s quest for excellence and prosperity and therefore social order has to be restored for the country to succeed.
The conference also dwelled on the place of South Africa within the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region, in Africa, within the Global South and globally in a general sense.
It was noted that the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA), so far ratified by 22 countries including South Africa and signed by 54 out of 55 countries, is expected to be in operation by 1 July 2020. This is a continental trading bloc in sync with South Africa’s vision 2030, its development blueprint, Africa’s agenda 2063 and development plans at the provincial and local levels.
South Africa’s peacebuilding efforts across Africa, specifically in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Darfur, Sudan, and Burundi, were a recognition that security and peace are central to economic prosperity in Africa and that Africa is as strong as its weakest state.
The question of citizenship and identity was teased out as well, given our painful and contested history of colonialism and apartheid, designed to dehumanise and debase black citizens.
Consequently, the citizenship and identity issue, with the attendant privileges and disadvantages linked to the racial fault line, is yet to be resolved. It contributes to elusive social cohesion, autochthonous politics, and anti-immigrant sentiment manifested in xenophobia.
The re-imagination of an inclusive South African identity is an ongoing project. A young researcher drew from kwaito to show how, in the wake of the first democratic elections in 1994, young South African musicians had used music to assert black identity and subvert the mythologised rainbow nation promoted by the political elite. Since nation-building is not universalistic, these musicians called to question an uncritical borrowing in this regard.
The contradiction between traditional leadership and republicanism within South Africa’s constitutional democracy was also interrogated.
One school of thought holds that traditional leaders are an anachronism; a vestige of a bygone era, owing to their reactionary views pertaining to gender, land rights, and conflict resolution, thus could undermine rather than enhance democracy unless rendered ceremonial.
A counterargument is that traditional leadership has a wider reach within the South African society than the local tier of government, making it indispensable to governance.
Moreover, the argument goes, traditional leadership is part of South Africa’s heritage and black identity that colonialism and apartheid tried to destroy. The politics of patronage within formal political structures has, however, since crept its way into traditional governance, necessitating the transformation of this layer of governance.
The conference came up with certain salient takeaways, one of which was an emphasis on collaboration involving the academe, research organisations, civil society, labour, business, and the government in resolving South Africa’s challenges.
Quality education, across the board, was identified as being at the core of alleviating unemployment, poverty, inequalities, crime, corruption, and citizenship and identity-related conflicts. Through education, it will be possible to inspire South Africans to forge a common approach to addressing issues that could undermine democracy.
The conference nudged South Africa to experiment with the type of social compacting that has been applied in places as diverse as the Netherlands, South Korea, Ireland, Singapore, and Sweden, all of whom have recorded remarkable success and progress in addressing social and economic issues.
At the same time, though, South Africa needs to borrow just as much from the Global South to enrich the social dialogue, for which it is renowned.
The CFTA is expected to provide a framework through which Africa can trade more with itself as opposed to distant markets and can boost its economies and improve people’s livelihoods so as to have a competitive edge in a world that is increasingly embracing nationalism, protectionism, anti-globalisation, and anti-immigration with the ascendancy of far-right politics.
It was argued that CFTA could provide the type of globalisation that works for Africa, taking into consideration Africa’s competitiveness in the oceans economy, for instance.
Regional Economic Communities (RECs) were, in the view of conference presenters, dysfunctional on the whole and this dysfunction pointed to the deep work that is required in operationalising free trade across the continent.
Moreover, Africa needs to add value to its primary commodities through beneficiation instead of exporting raw materials which are processed and then exported to the continent at a premium.
Turning from trendlines to headlines, the conference upheld the importance of the media in a democracy where it is only an informed citizenry that can best hold the government to account. However, active campaigns in media literacy are needed to ensure critical consumption of news from a multiplicity of media outlets, including those that empower the very same citizens to propagate falsehoods, hatred and intolerance.
Aligned to this, the government ought to take arts and culture seriously. Economic and political targets will not be realised if arts and culture are regarded as optional extras to transformation.
Being perceptive, artists have the rare capacity to deduce searching questions out of what could easily pass as the banal and mundane. They invite us to introspect, self-critique and laugh at ourselves while cajoling us into action for reform and renewal. Artists need more of what they don’t have – funding being top of the list – and less of what they’re often subjected to with boundless generosity: condemnation and censorship.
Ultimately, leadership that is decisive, inclusive, accountable and responsive is transformational. It harnesses people’s talents and devises strategies for alleviation of social pathologies such as poverty, inequalities, violence, crime, unemployment and corruption.
Twenty-five years after its departure from the station of our political transformation, South Africa’s developmental train is powered by the locomotive of a government which, in president Ramaphosa’s words, has to “to improve the current state of affairs, to aid in national-building and the forging of a common identity.”
The two days of discourse at the University of Johannesburg was an important contribution to keep the train on track and making sure it speeds up into the future.
For sure, readers of Daily Maverick and the public, in general, will agree that the next 25 years have to build on the past, acknowledge weakness and consolidate the gains. Poverty, unemployment and inequality undermine our democracy and therefore should be the principal focus for the years ahead. DM
Ngcaweni is head of policy in the Presidency, Moyo is a researcher at Mistra, Shilaho is a researcher at the University of Johannesburg.