South Africa


South Africa must unite to rebuild our democracy when gripped by a mood of despondency

South Africa must unite to rebuild our democracy when gripped by a mood of despondency
The 105th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the African National Congress (ANC) on 8 January 2016 at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo: Frennie Shivambu / Gallo Images)

South Africa is in a situation that is close to emergency conditions. And it’s important that big business acts in coordination with civil society, and other sectors and organisations, to leverage its power to save our country and our democracy.

This is an edited extract from the Helen Suzman Memorial Lecture, delivered by Ivan Pillay on 6 December 2022.

There is no denying that Helen Suzman’s political views and that of the ANC and its allies differed. Yet despite differences on strategy and tactics, there was an overall convergence between all anti-apartheid organisations in opposing racism and the range of repressive actions, laws and institutions wielded against both black and also white opponents of apartheid.

Helen Suzman made it her business to visit political prisoners all over the country, and the prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, have acknowledged that her interventions made a significant contribution to improving their conditions.

She also travelled long distances to see people living under restrictions, like Chief Albert Luthuli, Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Mamphela Ramphele.

She took risks and attended the militant – and often dangerous – funerals of activists when invited to do so. She believed that her presence could reduce the risk of police violence. She visited resettlement areas, townships and “squatter” camps, in order to have first-hand knowledge of conditions. This provided the ammunition to confront the authorities.

Crisis and recovery of democratic life

I speak to you today as a mood of despondency over the political situation envelops a great many people in our country. We know that many have disengaged from political involvement. Some, who have the means, have emigrated, including significant numbers of black professionals. Others do not know what to do about their sense of powerlessness, disappointment and anger.

There is distrust of the ANC, even among its followers, who, although they may vote for the organisation, do not believe or trust its promises.

No longer is the ANC seen as a reliable organisation for realising the aspirations of millions who suffered under apartheid. No longer is it closely identified with the poor and the marginalised.

Yet there is no other party that has won substantial trust. Surveys show that the strongest two alternatives – the DA and EFF – also evoke significant levels of distrust.

While other electoral alternatives have emerged, there is no evidence of a party that can win an election outright or obtain more votes than the ANC, or establish a stable coalition government. 

There is no party with a plan to address inequality, hunger, unemployment and the breakdown of basic services. 

There is no party that can be relied on to provide the bare minimum of conditions for a decent life for all.

This is a crisis of representation which primarily affects the ANC, in that it is no longer regarded as a credible, trusted and honourable force.

The distrust and cynicism extend to our institutions of representative democracy like Parliament, provincial legislatures and municipalities. Their oversight functions have been significantly weakened. 

The Zondo Commission has demonstrated the lack of political accountability of Members of Parliament failing to bring politicians involved in State Capture to book. Politicians have been shown to place more weight on obligations to their political parties than to citizens. Communities are, consequently, often left to fend for themselves.

But the problems are wider than individual parties. This is in fact a crisis of representative government. There is currently no viable pathway for resolving problems through the institutions of government, hamstrung by a low quality of democracy.

The crisis worsens as voters stay away or do not even register to vote. And there are additional potentially troubling signs, especially the withdrawal of the youth from the political landscape and the fact that unemployment is particularly high among the youth, even among those with matric or tertiary qualifications.

Conditions of schooling continue to reflect the existence of “two nations”, with schools accommodating primarily black scholars lacking basic facilities for satisfactory learning, including persistence of unsafe conditions, in defiance of court orders.

Distrust of state institutions

Against this background, very few people have confidence in the performance of institutions of state to deliver on their mandate and perform the duties assigned to them under the Constitution, and relevant legislation.

And this mistrust of the state was greatly aggravated by State Capture. 

Numerous institutions have been affected by State Capture in that many of the services which departments of state were supposed to deliver were put out to tender and, in the process of selecting service providers, billions of rand in fraud was committed and monies were wasted and lost without the goods that were needed being provided.

Although some institutions, like the judiciary, have performed well, the judiciary itself faces sustained attack from sections of the political stratum, together with assaults on the Constitution itself.

In this situation, it is unsurprising that citizens are despondent and apprehensive about the future of the country, and of its institutions, and are dubious about the value of their vote as the main way of securing change in remedying the present democratic crisis.

There are no easy answers to these questions. I do not have any easy answers. But I am certain that there are ways of effectively addressing the challenges faced by democratic or public institutions, and I say this based on my experiences at the South African Revenue Services – Sars. Our future is in our own hands.

What political role for people who cherish their freedoms?

At the broad political level, no one should forsake their hard-won right to vote. But it is clear that the vote is currently insufficient to bring about the type of changes that people are entitled to enjoy in our democratic state.

The three major parts of society – government, the private sector and civil society – are not aligned. They do not share agendas or have a common agenda. With regard to the state and business, each is asking the other to do something the other cannot do. Civil society is the weakest of the three; the least organised and stands outside of economic discourse, but feeling the pain of low growth.

At a political level, it is desirable for us to put some of our muscle into other organisations, outside of parliamentary and other elections, to bring pressure to bear on the authorities to fulfil the mandates with which they are vested. 

We can do this within religious organisations to which we may belong. We should act within professional organisations as lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses and various other professionals or people in trades. We can also pursue these goals as trade unionists or unemployed people, or as women, or in other sectors.

Some organisations working for their constitutional rights at the grassroots, as with the shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, are subject to heavy repression – over 30 members have been murdered. I commend the Helen Suzman Foundation for adding its voice to the few who have come out in support of Abahlali’s legitimate rights.

We can also involve ourselves in older and re-established or newly established organisations that act to regain our democracy, like the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Defend our Democracy and Equal Education.

Then there are the civic and residents’ organisations. The latter were and are constituency-based organisations which includes all political orientations. Given that local municipalities, except for those in the Western Cape and a sprinkling in other provinces, are corrupted and dysfunctional, objectively there is a need for local associations to once again become a forceful driver for change.

Trade unions are in a different situation. Once these were proud participants in the national struggle for liberation. Now many have narrowed their role and interests to either focus solely on their work conditions or, worse, support factionalists and even the corrupt. Trade unions too should be revitalised and play their part in renewing our democracy.

A vibrant civil society is essential for a thriving democracy. Civil society should harness its professionals and its students to use their knowledge to support and oppose government plans and activities when necessary.

Business and the recovery of democracy and constitutionalism

It’s easy to see that while the Constitution remains the foundation of our democratic life, there is an absence of leadership from business, labour and government; leadership that is prepared to take the country to the next level of development.

Unlike in the early 1990s, when there was a visible common intent and purpose to work for and create a “national interest”, the present situation is marked by its absence. We need leadership that is prepared to move the country in a different direction. This means answering the question of what is presently required, by whom, and by when.

Businesses – big and small – need to be involved. 

Big Business is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful force in the country today. It showed its muscle in the political terrain at the end of the Jacob Zuma era, also coming into the streets in some cases. Unfortunately, Big Business did not sustain the momentum it created and retreated to the business of business. It is now time for businesses to act boldly to prevent democratic reversals.

I am conscious of the fact that business prefers to act informally and use its entry to the corridors of power to exercise its influence. But the country is in a situation that is close to emergency conditions. And it’s important that business acts in coordination with other sectors and organisations to leverage its power to save our country and our democracy.

The conditions that business needs for its own activities, to be able to operate, relate to the failure of government in important spheres like crime prevention, the prevalence of violence, the spread of corruption and the collapse of services. 

All of these matters affect the whole population and they certainly affect business. But business has more power than the ordinary citizen or worker and it’s important that this power is brought to bear.


Civil society in the period ahead

Recent events once again demonstrated the power of civil society during State Capture. Jacob Zuma provoked a mighty groundswell of determination to rid the state of him and the Guptas. Indeed, the fledgling alliance between civil society formations, a small number of progressives in the ANC, and opposition parliamentary parties successfully protested, marched and litigated against State Capture. 

The string of stirring victories and the potential damage to the ANC finally caused a narrow majority to ditch Zuma.

Unfortunately, once again, on the threshold of victory, civil society retired into the background and allowed politicians to occupy the foreground. It seems to be a recurring pattern that should be broken.

That members of this audience should reclaim that space would be the final thought I would like to leave with you. DM

Ivan Pillay is the former Deputy Commissioner of the South African Revenue Service. He went into exile in 1977 and joined Umkhonto weSizwe, and from 1980 to 1985 was the commander of the MJK (Mandla Judson Kuzwayo) Unit. He ran Operation Vula, reporting to Oliver Tambo.


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