Maverick Citizen


‘Our democracy is killing us’ – civil society leaders weigh in on the ‘real’ state of the nation

‘Our democracy is killing us’ – civil society leaders weigh in on the ‘real’ state of the nation
Kholwani Simelane of Green Connection addresses the crowd. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Leaders from across South Africa’s civil society, political and private sectors gathered at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on Wednesday to discuss the ‘real state of the nation’ ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address.

‘When you think about what we are fighting for here, we’re not fighting to replace one ruling class with another. We are literally fighting for our comrades’, our compatriots’… our families’ lives.”

These were the words of Tessa Dooms, director of the Rivonia Circle, at a gathering of civil society and other groups on Wednesday, 8 February. The event, hosted by Defend Our Democracy at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, sought to assess the “real state of the nation” in the lead-up to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (Sona).

Dooms spoke of the “state of trauma” that many people across South Africa were living in, citing her own experience of watching children participate in marches for housing, and schoolchildren protesting against the violent deaths of their classmates.

“Our democracy is killing us. Our democracy is killing people’s futures,” she said. “When I say that… the depth of our crisis is about disillusionment and despair. I’m not just talking about disillusionment with the ruling party… and people not showing up to vote – I’m talking about people opting out of living.”

For too long, South Africans have glossed over the political crisis in the country, leaving it for someone else to solve, according to Dooms.

“As a country, we’ve become fixated on the question of the economy – and rightfully so because people need to be fed – but there’s another part of becoming a more equal society, and a society where people are not in poverty… and that’s the role of the state,” she said.

Sona civil society Defend Our Democracy

Defend Our Democracy hosted ‘A country in crisis – The real state of the nation’ at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on Wednesday. (Photo: Unsplash)

“Politics must be everybody’s business. Politics must be daily, not every five years or five minutes. Politics is the core problem that we have. If we fix it, if we fix governance, if we make our democracy real… then we get to go somewhere.”

Dooms was one of several leaders from across the civil society, politics and business sectors who spoke about the state of the nation at Wednesday’s gathering. Among the issues highlighted were safety in communities, protection of whistle-blowers, anti-corruption efforts, the climate crisis and the need for political change.

Community safety and inequality

High levels of inequality continue in every part of society, including the workplace, education and communities, according to Axolile Notywala of the Movement for Collective Action and Racial Equity.

Notywala pointed out the high levels violence facing people – particularly young black men – in informal settlements and low-income communities, that were responded to with little urgency by broader society.

“We have a [football] team in Khayelitsha called Role Models FC. We woke up to the news that [a team member] was shot dead in his house. This speaks to the crisis of dignity and quality of life of primarily black working-class people in the country, that a lot of time is not necessarily seen as a crisis,” he said.

The political assassinations targeting Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers’ movement in KwaZulu-Natal, were another example in this regard, he continued. Abahlali has lost 24 members since its inception in 2005.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Another Abahlali baseMjondolo leader murdered, shot four times in the back

“How do we not see that as a crisis as a nation? The moment that happened to Abahlali and we just let it go, it’s just going to continue happening,” he said. 

“A life of a young black man, a life of a person living in informal settlements – one life, two lives, three lives that are lost – we should start seeing these issues as crises.”

Pamela Silwana of the Gugulethu Community Action Network spoke of Gugulethu as a warm and diverse community, but one plagued by violence.

“Boys and young men are dying because of mass shootings. Many mothers are crying for their children and police presence is not visible,” she said.

“We are told there are not enough resources to help our community feel safe. I love my community but I would love to feel much safer.”

Whistle-blowers and corruption

A key issue in South Africa is the protection of whistle-blowers, according to Rachel Fischer, parliamentary engagement and research manager at the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse.

“If it weren’t for whistle-blowers, we would not have known of State Capture and the extent of the rot that came from it,” she said.

Zackie Achmat, a long-time activist and member of civil society movement #UniteBehind, spoke about the struggles of Tutuka Power Station manager Sello Mametja, who uncovered a syndicate that was stealing fuel oil from the plant.

Rachel Fischer of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, Axolile Notywala of the Movement for Care and Tessa Dooms of the Rivonia Circle discuss the real state of the nation on Wednesday. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“Today his children have to come home from school with protectors and go to school with protectors… [Mametja] has two protectors and he has to wear a bulletproof jacket to work,” he said.

Achmat described Martha Ngoye – suspended head of legal, risk and compliance at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) – as one of the greatest whistle-blowers in the country for exposing corruption worth billions of rands at the state-owned enterprise.

Read in Daily Maverick:Suspended Prasa whistle-blower Martha Ngoye found not guilty in arbitration case

“We’re also looking to Parliament to send to jail the MPs and ministers involved in Prasa’s destruction. We wish to say to the City of Cape Town and to the Gauteng provincial government, take over Prasa and let… communities work with you to fix it,” he said.

“The state is destroyed. It isn’t capable of providing solutions to the struggle of working people and poor people… Our society must take power back. It is both political power and democratic participation at every level.”

Climate and energy crises

The climate crisis is already affecting the lives, jobs and education of South Africans, said Francesca de Gasparis, executive director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei).

“We know what we do to our environment we wrought upon ourselves,” she said. “We’re now being told that our current energy crisis is costing about a billion rand a day in the formal economy. This does not include the true cost of poor energy decision-making and planning. 

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“We are externalising the impact by relying on crisis management and being in this permanent state of emergency which impacts those most vulnerable.”

The government’s policies around the energy crisis are inadequate, continued De Gasparis.

“We realised that Eskom literally cannot deliver its mandate – it is unable to afford to deliver affordable and reliable electricity. So, recently the Green Connection and Safcei took the government to court to say, please start doing proper energy planning.”

The two organisations have initiated a legal challenge against President Cyril Ramaphosa to force him to bring Section 6 of the National Energy Act into operation, thereby developing an Integrated Energy Plan, according to Safcei.

“The reason we find ourselves here today is simply because our government has failed to plan, and if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” said Kholwani Simelane of the Green Connection.

Political and economic change

The people of South Africa need to take back control and transform political power relations in the country, according to Solly Mapaila, general secretary of the South African Communist Party.

“We have an overly dominant capitalist system that concentrates power in the hands of the few and the rich and is unable to transform society as a whole,” he said. “So, let’s transform the system… and create a reliable public sector system, a people’s democracy, that can be accountable.”

Dooms described 2023 as a “make-or-break” year in light of the 2024 general election.

Michael Weeder, Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, delivers the opening address at Defend Our Democracy’s event, ‘;A country in crisis – The real state of the nation’. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“We decide this election this year, not next year, because this is the time that we need to… decide what will be on the ballot next year – what are the issues? What are the solutions? What are the things we care about that we are going to have to exchange for our vote?” she said.

“Let us put plans together and tell them, ‘if you don’t support this plan, you don’t get my vote’.”


Defend Our Democracy issued a memorandum addressed to Ramaphosa in the lead-up to his Sona. The demands include:

  • Outline a credible plan of action to deal with the energy crisis;
  • Indicate what accountability and transparency measures will be put in place to prevent costly, corrupt and environmentally detrimental energy deals;
  • Outline what measures will be taken against Cabinet members in line with the Zondo Commission report;
  • Detail what the government is doing in relation to fixing railways and ensuring Prasa is protected from further corruption; and
  • Outline how far the government is in ensuring strengthened whistle-blower support and protection.

The memorandum was endorsed by 72 organisations. 

“South Africa is in a state of crisis on many fronts. As power stations continue to collapse, along with railways and reservoirs, so too do the hopes and dreams of our nation,” read the memorandum.

“We urge you… to present a sober account of the state of the nation, to put forward a plan to lift us out of this spiralling crisis, and to accept that if these plans fail, that the buck stops with you.” DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    …….And the taxpayer has to just carry on coughing up!

  • David Gregory says:

    It’s not just about the money anymore. The thugs and gangsters have taken over the country in so many aspects and there is no political will to fix it. Largely, I suspect, because the people empowered to fix it are part of the problem.

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