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Civil society can reignite hope for a reset, but we mus...

Maverick Citizen


Defend Our Democracy conference offers hope of a reset – if it’s prepared to do things differently and be bold

The ball is once more in civil society’s court. Can it capture the public imagination? Can it reignite a progressive mobilisation involving tens of thousands of people? Can it kindle genuine hope and offer a road other than further polarisation, violence and conflict? We believe that it can.

This weekend an important gathering of civil society organisations, the Conference for Democratic Renewal and Change, takes place in Johannesburg. Its aim is to rally and unite more people to Defend Our Democracy and, the organisers say, to: 

“collectively begin to envision a new politics for the country, where the conduct, ethics, integrity and values of public representatives are beyond reproach, and which enables the expression of a people’s power that can demand accountability, transparency and a fulfilment of the promises made in the Constitution.”

In the wake of the final instalment of the Zondo Commission report, with its far-reaching recommendations, and warnings from Thuli Madonsela and others that South Africans should guard against state recapture, the conference is right on time.

It also takes place in the context of deepening social fragmentation, RET coup plotting, organised xenophobic attacks such as the burning down of Yeoville market (and sinister rumblings of more violence) and a seemingly ceaseless series of disasters and tragedies that keep on afflicting the poor: the latest being the terrible deaths of 21 children at a tavern in Scenery Park, East London.

As we said in our editorial last week (“Give me hope, Mzansi – we need a new vision to empower a bold reset of our country”), South Africa is a country waiting to implode… unless we take action to save it.

In the wake of the final instalment of the Zondo Commission report, with its far-reaching recommendations, and warnings from Thuli Madonsela and others that South Africans should guard against state recapture, the Conference for Democratic Renewal and Change is right on time. (Photo: Gallo Images / Esa Alexander)

In the face of these multiple crises the government is AWOL. There’s still not much evidence that the political and economic elites are willing to act with urgency to take drastic, constitutionally mandated human rights measures needed to stop the battering of the poor. 

Failure to do so means that just like with nature in the face of global heating, there will be a reaction. And when it comes it will be nasty.

Last call for democracy

This places the ball once more in civil society’s court. 

Can it capture the public imagination? Can it reignite a progressive mobilisation involving tens of thousands of people? Can it kindle genuine hope and offer a road other than further polarisation, violence and conflict?

We believe that it can. 

Remember, in 1976 it was young people; in 1985 it was the UDF and Cosatu who resisted the State of Emergency; between 1990 and 1994 it was civil society that held the country together in the face of attempts to tip it into civil war; in 2003 it was the Treatment Action Campaign that forced the government to introduce a National Treatment Plan to provide ARVs to people with HIV; it 2015 it was students who decided that #FeesMustFall; in 2017 it was a broad civil society mobilisation, through the courts, on the streets and through the media, that put the Zupta alliance on the back foot and eventually gave enough people in the ANC the backbone to remove Zuma. 

Since then, however, civil society has fallen back into its silos, campaigning issue by issue, making little headway, failing to make an imprint on the overarching issues of governance and politics. 

Consequently the new dawn has become yet another dusk. 

A new politics and ethics for civil society

Maverick Citizen hopes that the Conference for Democratic Renewal and Change is part of civil society rising again. Side by side with other initiatives, it can be an important step forward in addressing political and social issues that undermine the core of our democracy and Constitution. 

A tearful Emilie Luvadiokueno from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in what remains of her store at the Yeoville market in Johannesburg. The predominantly Congolese-owned shops were destroyed in an alleged arson attack. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

However, to achieve its vision of “a new politics for the country” we believe now is the time to introduce a new politics and ethics for civil society.

Among those who share a vision of equality, non-racialism, non-sexism and social justice, now is the time to define a new operating system built around the practice of a set of values: these include mutual respect; collaboration; transparency; working to advance what we agree on (and seeking to find agreement) rather than be paralysed on where we differ; starting from a point of trust, rather than suspicion; and finding strength in our different identities and backgrounds, rather than being divided by them. Too frequently activism has practised the opposite. It has become inward-looking and exclusive. Not surprisingly, civil society has ended up fragmented, an irritant to abuse of power and corruption, but not a threat.

Now is the time for a revitalised civil society movement to be totally independent of all political parties. It can be beholden to no political party, have a vested interest in no party. Its aim is not to protect any party or any politicians. 

We need democracy and accountability to win.

Now is the time to mobilise to ensure rapid implementation of many of Zondo’s recommendations before the 2024 election – including for electoral reform – something we can trust no party to do.

Bodies are removed from Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, East London. (Photo: Supplied)
Young people from organisations across South Africa at a Youth Day parade for justice and change organised by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation in Pretoria on 16 June 2022. They were demanding that the government do everything in its power to combat unemployment among young people, gender-based violence, climate change and crime. (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

Now is the time to understand how deep the disaffection and distrust with democracy is. A(nother) pious Declaration won’t stop the rot. It’s time to demonstrate the practice of democracy, get out of the office and into communities, learn and teach and listen.  

Now is the time for older activists to pass the baton to younger people to lead with their ideas and expectations. On 16 June, more than 1,000 young people marched to the Union Buildings to hand the Presidency a memorandum setting out their needs and demands. This moment was a reminder that the job of older generations is to support young people from behind.

Participants in a Youth Day commemoration at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto on 16 June 2022. It marked 46 years since the uprising in which many children lost their lives while standing up against an oppressive system that sought to strip them of their identity and break their spirit. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

If the Conference for Democratic Renewal and Change can’t pave the way within as short a time as possible to providing basic services, protection against crime and climate change, then what has democracy to offer? Every great advance in our society has come as a result of activism. But people need hope to ignite their power.

This is why democratic renewal and defending democracy must promise to address people’s basic needs and realise their human rights. Austerity must end. The vision of the Freedom Charter is as righteous and possible today as it was in 1955. Our country has enough food, houses and work to be done; it has doctors, teachers and public servants willing to go an extra mile; most of its citizens yearn for peace and safety; millions already work for good in their communities; our natural resources are plentiful. People have big ideas and small examples that work. Another South Africa is still possible. DM/MC


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  • A South Africa where peace, justice, fairness and respect for one another are the pillars of our society. A country where people are free to build meaningful lives and realise their dreams and where true to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom are the cornerstone of this Nation.
    Where our focus is on our commonality as human beings and our diversity is seen as an opportunity to learn from and complement each other so that we can build a country that we can proudly hand over to our children.

  • I am surprised that there are not many more comments and excitement for what seems like a leadership event to me?

    Can DM please let us know how citizens can contribute and how? I find it encouraging that the debate is moving from discussions about how bad thing are in SA and exactly who was responsible for State Capture to hopefully a conversation around what, how, when and where we can act to rescue our beautiful country and unify ALL our people with concrete deliberate actions with accountable leadership as a rationale.

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