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To prevent South Africa from becoming a failed society, we must all rise and become active citizens. This means more than just holding politicians to account – it means caring for each other and playing an active role in our communities.

The society-wide consensus forged in South Africa after the end of apartheid has now collapsed in the face of corruption, dishonesty, the breakdown of basic moral standards, and the rule of law. We need something new to replace the consensus forged after 1994, to which every political party, irrespective of their ideology, should subscribe.  

Competing governance systems to the Constitution, state failure, tribalisation, the exclusion of large numbers of South Africans based on demographics, and uncaring public servants, have all contributed to a breakdown of the former democratic consensus.  

The pillars of a new democratic consensus 

What should the pillars of a new democratic consensus be? The Constitution must be the apex governance system, without challenge, whether from customary law, township or village communal culture, gang, or liberation party culture. The rule of law has to be a central pillar of a new consensus.  

South Africa’s diversity must be accepted as a pillar of the country’s identity. The best way forward for South Africa is what Michael Ignatieff described as “civic nationalism”, where the glue holding communities together is equal rights and shared democratic cultures, values, and institutions, rather than ethnic nationalism.  

Merit-based public service 

A professional, merit-based, non-politicised public service that is not aligned to a governing party is critical for the delivery of public services, a functioning economy and uniting South Africans across race, class, and politics. The state must treat citizens with dignity and with efficiency.  

The public service is critical in modelling moral, democratic, responsive behaviour that is accountable, and therefore helps to instill a democratic culture (or not).  

Strategies of redress have to be reimagined and economic development policies must focus not on a small black or white elite, or only on uplifting the poor, but on everyone, irrespective of race, colour, or political affiliation.   

Upskilling vs empowerment  

Empowerment must refocus on delivering skills, quality education and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as assets, such as home ownership. In the short term, South Africa needs a basic income grant, but one that is linked to skills development, entrepreneurship, active citizenship, and democratic civic education – with recipients even being asked to volunteer in their communities in a variety of roles.   

Active citizenry 

South Africa needs more active democratic citizenship, which carries with it individual roles and responsibilities, and accountability – not just the exercising of rights, freedoms, and expectations, but the kind of citizenship which follows the rule of law, engages with neighbours, community, and society through a range of civic activities.  

Companies too must behave as model democratic corporate citizens, respecting democratic institutions and the environment. Business operations should be conducted in a sustainable way – minimising environmental harms, emphasising human rights, and fair labour and consumer trade practices. 

The ultimate demonstration of active citizenship is at the ballot box, rejecting parties and leaders who are corrupt, incompetent, and uncaring. South Africa is in danger of becoming a failed society, one in which social order breaks down, social norms fray and traditional family structures collapse. The failure of the government to provide basic services accelerates society’s fracturing. 

Recovery strategy 

Reversing the slide starts with government law enforcement, the delivery of public services, and holding public officials to account. But opposition parties, civil society, faith-based organisations, and businesses will all have to collaborate if we are to restore social norms, order, and good civic behaviours.  

There has to be a national consensus to tackle apartheid-induced mass trauma which has left individuals and communities so broken, with many struggling to engage fully in our democracy, with the state, in the workplace, and even in intimate relationships.  

Given this reality, self-esteem and agency assertion need to be taught at all levels of society – recipients of government grants and other forms of financial support could be compelled to attend civic, democracy and self-care programmes.  

There has to be a new consensus if we are to change the country’s culture and the way we engage with others, and to change what have become acceptable social norms, values, and behaviour, but which have become corrupted.  

To give effect to this national culture change, there must be greater enforcement of duties, responsibilities, and accountabilities among ordinary citizens, as well as elected and public representatives.  

Finally, the reward structure in society has to be changed to one based on hard work, honesty, and merit – not political affiliations, colour, or past struggle credentials. 

This article was first published in Curios.ty, the Wits research magazine. William Gumede is an Associate Professor in the Wits School of Governance, Founder and Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times. DM


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