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FIXING SOUTH AFRICA OP-ED

SA people, let’s work together to rebuild the country of our dreams

SA people, let’s work together to rebuild the country of our dreams
The conclusion of a scathing three-part series exposes the toxic grip of neoliberalism on South Africa, highlighting its detrimental effects on democracy. (Image: iStock) south african flag

Rise Mzansi is the national renewal effort we have craved for years, but can now finally implement.

At the final Daily Maverick webinar of 2022, our excellent host, Rebecca Davis, asked Mmusi Maimane and me a perfectly sensible question about what we would do to put an end to rolling blackouts. We both offered what I felt were workable short- and long-term solutions, but I wished we had been asked a bigger question: How can South Africa be set right? 

Over the years we have spent so much time focusing exclusively on technocratic questions that we have failed to see and discuss what is hiding in plain sight, and that is a vision and a set of overarching priorities to realise it. Yes, the day-to-day issues oppressing South African citizens and businesses are real and unavoidable, but part of the reason we can never move the needle or make the tough choices needed to create the country we want is that we never describe it. 

My hope is for a South Africa built on the social democratic values of freedom, equality, justice and solidarity. I also believe that a fifth value, integrity, is non-negotiable. After the trauma of the past 15 years or so, it goes without saying that having people without integrity in key roles in our society is suicidal. These happen to be the values upon which Rise Mzansi is doing its work and building a national footprint, but more about that later. 

Agreement on values

Values are important because it is not enough to merely have a Constitution, a long legal document that most people find difficult to internalise. The first step towards rebuilding our country is to agree on our values, because they will anchor a vision, however contested it may be. Those contestations will, in the end, be about whether or not we are adhering to our values. 

Second, I believe in a free African society where the rights of every human being are not only guaranteed and protected, but the state (which belongs to the free people) and its assets are used to advance those rights. We should build a modern African society where everyone has a meaningful opportunity to build a fulfilling, happy life because they are able to fulfil their potential, using their talents for personal growth and the advancement of society. 

This is an intellectual and moral task that may appear abstract, but I earnestly believe that if we do not grapple with it we will remain a lost society trying to solve a myriad of problems but anchored by nothing. We cannot afford to delay the task, as daunting as it may be. 

By beginning this journey, we immediately give ourselves the opportunity to move past the old, suffocating framework of “progressive” politics as defined by the ANC’s historical journey. This definition is premised on Marxist-Leninist sloganeering that is an obstacle to progress because its proponents are often conservative, patriarchal, narrowly nationalist and the antithesis of what a modern society should aspire to be.

It allows its cadres and supporters to find comfort in a strange coexistence of stated revolutionary morality and the corruption almost inherently entrenched by the view that insists on the state being the alpha and omega of every option and solution. In turn, this transforms political processes into a contestation for control of national economic assets within the ANC, repeating a vicious cycle of political and economic corruption with devastating socioeconomic consequences for the poor. 

The need for a careful balance

No, I am not arguing for privatisation. I am arguing for a careful balance between the state being the intermediator of different interests in society, the facilitator of social and economic justice through legislation, regulation and the deployment of fiscal resources to drive long-term development, as well as the arbiter of disputes through an independent court system. 

Our task is to determine in which instances we need each of these and what principles and values must inform that work. If we do so, we unshackle ourselves from the misguided belief that either privatisation or state dominance are the only options on the table. A state that is clear and confident in its values and principles will create rules and conditions in which it is possible to deploy fruitfully both private and public sector capital to drive economic opportunity and development. 

This means that we must implement political reforms that reduce the power of political parties in favour of the electorate and that rebalance the powers of the legislative and executive branches so that Parliament can play a stronger oversight role. These political institutional changes are necessary so that we always set rules that ensure adequate transparency and accountability to the public, whether the actors are from the public or private sectors. 

In such a scenario, we will have a Parliament that can hold accountable, in public, both the private sector and government because ultimately the country belongs to all the people of South Africa through an open democratic system. We must work towards having parliamentarians of such quality that they can haul before Parliament, for example, the JSE, auditing firms and the leadership of Steinhoff, to account for their roles in the problems of the latter. 

These are all institutions that, although private, wield enormous public power and therefore must have an obligation to account properly to the South African people. And for those who think this is weird, many developed democracies and economies have precisely this arrangement — and the extent to which it works or does not depends entirely on the quality and corruptibility or otherwise of its political class. 

Fundamental shift in mindset

However, we must also recognise that the work I set out above requires a fundamental shift in mindset from all of us. That means we must all, at some level, accept political responsibility as part of our obligations as citizens. By this, I mean the responsibility to shape and drive political outcomes. 

There is no genetically special class of people called “politicians” who are preordained to determine the destiny of the rest of us. We are going to need South Africans who love the country and its people to come together to have this discussion, to determine a path forward and then to work with commitment to realise these goals. Good results are not manna from heaven, they are the outcome of hard work and sacrifice. 

And so, back to Rebecca Davis’s question about rolling blackouts. 

Neither Eskom nor our general energy crisis will be fixed if we do not have a government, parliamentarians and experienced professionals who share the same value system and work together with society to fix our national problems. We do not have that now and we will not have it until we work for it.

We cannot meaningfully talk about public-private partnerships if we do not have the leadership in both sectors believing in the same broad vision and anchored by clear and shared values. Again, we must choose to work at this and accept the difficult conversations we must have to get there. 

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This is why we have chosen the path we have in building Rise Mzansi, through the Mzansi campaign. The usual political party start-up is immediately insular, compelling people to be members before they can make a meaningful contribution to the country they love.

We have chosen an open, inviting path where we change from “What is your solution?” to “How can we work together to build the country of our dreams?” Securing the future we dream of is not a procurement process or a political buffet where most otherwise highly capable people behave like sceptical customers ready to poke holes at what is on offer. We have done that for nearly three decades and as a result, our country is falling apart before our eyes.

Now is the time to make different choices and take ownership of our country. Rise Mzansi is that opportunity, and we cannot let it slip from our hands. Our country cannot afford any more vacillation and self-doubt. DM

Songezo Zibi is a founding member of the Rise Campaign.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    The concept is excellent. Democratic values of freedom, equality, justice and solidarity with the addition of non-negotiable integrity are critical to a solution for South Africa. But I would add a sixth, pragmatic value – competence. The ANC policy of cadre deployment has been, and will continue to be destructive to all SOEs. The appointment of politically correct persons, rather than competent persons to senior positions across all of South African industry, business, academia, etc has been, and will continue to be destructive to the country. This is necessary because if we have all of freedom, equality, justice, solidarity and integrity without fixing education and ensuring the appropriate use of the high level of expertise in the country we are still going nowhere.

    • Jennifer van den Dool says:

      I agree with Geoff, we will never achieve ecomnomic advantage for our previously disadvanatged communities if we dont appoint competent people. My concern with the ongoing discussions is they all remain academic, we nned to start discuiing the practicalities – who and how, in each sector, and which sectors/ issues are a priority, deal with them effectively, as we fx one, the spinoff will surely make the next project more feasible.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    This is exactly the kind of outlook the country needs. I particularly like the ideas of limiting the power of political parties, and forcing them to be accountable to the people who vote for them, and of ensuring that parliamentarians are adequately educated to take on their roles of representing the public.

    But, talk is cheap, as is writing. I would like to know how Mr Zibi will solve the biggest problem of all – taking over from a defeated ANC and dealing with a State comprises almost 100% of ANC supporters, organised through the unions; and the second biggest problem, neutralising the crime syndicates which has all but taken over the ANC and the country. There has to be a workable plan dealing with these problems, or any new government will fail.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Songezo is a real sign of hope. His social democratic values should enable him to build support in the political middle ground which is critical for South Africa. He will probably face strong power contestation from the main established political parties who will seek to retain the power they have achieved so a struggle lies ahead for him. Ordinary voters like myself will want to see how the values will generate concrete strategies that deal with extreme inequality, particularly in education and land for housing. They will want to see a commitment to meeting basic human needs. There is also the potentially controversial issue of support for a basic market system with some state intervention where circumstances make it necessary. This can all best be addressed by a simple, clear, value-based vision statement that is easily understood and absorbed.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    VISION: A South Africa where peace, justice, fairness and respect for one another are the pillars of 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 our Nation.

  • James Francis says:

    Another piece with will-intention and high-minded solutions, but no actual concrete answers. We know what we need right now: accountability and prosecution of those enabling criminal syndicates turning us into a rent-seeking nation. #GwedeMantasheMustGo

    • Rory Macnamara says:

      Not only Gwede but a whole bunch of others, Sisulu, NDZuma to name two who have ended up with blood noses.
      Agree fully, until we see prosecutions and money returned to this country and its people, we have nothing but chatter!

  • Fernando Moreira says:

    Just vote DA

    • Paddy Ross says:

      The policies of the DA are essentially those of social democracy so your three word comment is the most practical of all the comments above.

    • John Counihan says:

      DA is such a practical solution. So sad that Mmusi threw in the towel so tamely. He gave the DA the “rainbow nation” legitimacy that enabled all our people to consider going with the party. Now black people are easily dissuaded from doing so by the new, crude racism stoked by the ANC RET faction.

  • Pete Smith says:

    Underlying the many values, principles and ideas imbedded in Songezo Zibi’s manifesto for our country is the call for all caring and capable citizens to get involved. As the ever positive Imtiaz Sooliman says, this country belongs to us the people, not the government.

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