“Can a truly democratic movement break the stranglehold of corrupt elites and powerful anti-democratic institutional forces that have come to characterize not just the politics of Greece, but most Western democracies, including the US?” Arianna Huffington asked in her 28 June 2011 blog. It may be too early to put Huffington’s entire question to the South African context, but its substance, and given the trajectory of our politics of governance, we sure find familiar.
Indeed, questions of the depth, legitimacy and authenticity of our democracy, given “party lists” and political “royalty” – where “struggle credentials” matter more than talent and potential – often arise. In this context, which has allowed this political elitism and cronyism to fester, we have to be realistic and anticipate the potential of Huffington’s situation.
It is not enough, neither is it useful, to be disillusioned by the saturation of news and social discourse around events and issues that seem to suggest democratic gains are under threat. As the chattering classes we may ask, what is it that we can do, short of changing the government, and more than just talking about all the problems we face.
In a column entitled “Attention ANC: we are a serious country with serious potential” highlighting the progress we’ve made as a country since our birth in 1994, Editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee wrote, “We have this odd situation in South Africa where black people who have made the biggest gains from the end of apartheid – new middle-class people like you and I – are, bizarrely, the most invested in pretending that nothing has changed.”
Indeed, a lot has changed, and for the better. We are far richer, far more educated, with far more access to the levers of power and money, whether we are comfortable in admitting it or not. Many of us have benefited from the fruits of democracy. South Africa today is the kind of country that allows the son of a single mother and domestic worker to access a good and higher education, to rise within the corporate environment, to earn enough to have a middle-class livelihood and send some back home. We are often uncomfortable to admit it, but it has happened, and continues to happen.
What needs to happen now is that we who have made the gains and progress, who have received the fruits of democracy, must do whatever we can not only to protect the gains we’ve made, but extend them. More than this, we must make sure we defend a South Africa which gives opportunity for success to every man and woman who has the inclination to imagine and pursue a better life. This would include strongly opposing the rising levels of cronyism and nepotism.
The only way we can defend democracy and freedom is to bring more people into its fold to experience its fruits. These include better education, which is not merely about textbooks, but about access to information, to books, to knowledge. It is no longer enough, nor is it desirable, to go painting schools on Saturdays when we can start book clubs at these schools. It is no longer enough to be tutors when we can facilitate teacher training, advancement and dignity. It is no longer enough to lament poor leadership when we can be role models, making ourselves available as examples of what is possible beyond tenderpreneurship and celebrity.
As we have succeeded in forming investment schemes and buying expensive cars, we can pool together funds to provide bursaries and support to young people who have shown potential, but cannot compete because their backgrounds have denied them the competitive edge required for traditional funding.
Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in India taught us a thing or two about our ability to pool together small change and hand it over for use to people who are excluded by traditional systems of business, investment and entrepreneurial funding.
To defend and sustain democracy, we must bring more people into the “fruits of democracy”. All of us have something to lose should the democratic order collapse. The promise of a toilet or a mine grab should not be the deciding factor on whether or not the hopeful succeed.
When we have done all this we will be able to “break the stranglehold of corrupt elites” and allow democracy to ring true for all. DM
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.