Defend Truth


The wuthering heights of disenchantment


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

We were once hailed as the model for a peaceful transition to a successful democracy. But now, people are losing confidence in the democratic process. Corruption and arrogance are breaking down political honesty, and it’s affecting every aspect of our society – a far cry from the vows we made to the people in 1994.

“Our problems are political. Our most serious challenges are that most of our governments are hostage to powerful corrupt global and national elites. Any attempt to separate our development agenda from social justice, human dignity and our fundamental human rights is doomed to failure. Politics and development are two sides of one coin. The civil society world has become so infatuated with the frills and benefits of the development industry that they are often more accountable to those who pay the bill and finance their per diem’s than the poor they claim to represent.” 

“The leadership of civil society, the labour and social movements and the non-governmental organisations face its moment of truth. From the ‘Arab Spring’ to Marikana, from the student rebellions in Chile and Quebec to the anti-corruption movements of India the people are on the streets. There is a growing ferment and anger in the world. Many feel their leaders have been seduced by the glittering banquets, mesmerised by the international conference circuit and the hobnobbing with the rich, the famous and celebrity politicians. Development has been reduced to microwave activism and digital petitions.” 

These are some of the views I heard from those attending the Civicus World Assembly in Montreal last week, at which almost 800 delegates came together.

Under the spotlight was the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals process. The ink has hardly dried on explanations of how the MDG goals failed in many developing countries, but the battle has already broken out on a post-2015 scenario. The merchant class of poverty experts, the whizz kids with their digital toys, the bureaucrats of the multi-lateral system and governments and the academic white knights with their religious fervour are fighting up to carve their futures and funding in this scramble for ownership of the poor.

The real voices of the poor are silent. The reality that billions live in poverty is blurred; the fact that malnutrition’s global impact is equivalent to a jetliner filled with innocent children crashing every hour is not being tackled adequately, even though we have the knowledge, the expertise and the financial resources to solve this shameful crisis. Hunger dominates the daily life of a billion people worldwide, yet powerful corporates manipulate food prices and grab the remaining arable lands in Africa. The newspaper headlines scream daily of citizens being bombed by their governments, of the pristine shores of the Artic being exploited by greedy oil companies and the endless destruction of our forests, oceans, plant and animal species. We have the political will to pour trillions into rescuing the ‘banksters’ who brought the global economy to its knees, but lack the political will to save lives and the future of our planet.

This September, we will convene again in New York around the UN General Assembly. We will sit in air-conditioned conference halls listening patiently to long-winded political speeches about what has been done. We will slap ourselves on the back and celebrate the progress we have made while eating canapés and sipping expensive wine in ballrooms of fancy hotels. Very few of the poor will cross the barricades and be heard here.

Every meeting will be billed as a prime example of an effective public private partnership. It will be dominated by heads of government, the UN and corporate leaders. And the celebrity media moderator – with little time left in the programme – will turn to the civil society leader and appeal to them to stick to two minutes. The box of consultation will be ticked.

I have heard many times UN bureaucrats bemoaning the fragmentation of civil society .“Why can’t you speak with one voice? Why are you always in opposition? You have yourselves to blame.”

I have sympathy with that view. I believe that generally, civil society has become enmeshed in the minutia of the process for which it has very few resources, compared to governments and business. Members of civil society are disconnected from their base, have lost their bargaining power and hope that good faith negotiations and the fair play and justice will prevail.

But the future of the world we want is dominated by ‘dirty industry’ and powerful elites. And they will plough billions into capturing state power and manipulating markets to maintain their power.  Today elections, even in most democracies, are based on campaign funds that are contributed by vested interests. It is legitimised by an incestuous lobbyist industry or as blatant as suitcases of cash floating around party congresses buying votes.

There is a sense of anger and frustration I see growing. Trust in national and global institutions is at an all-time low. In the face of this unprecedented crisis, the Civicus World Assembly resolved to unite to demand “a legitimate and inclusive development framework that must work to genuinely integrate ending poverty, ensuring environmental sustainability and promoting human rights.”

It adopted a Montreal Declaration and Plan of Action, which stated: “We continue to hold governments and the international community to account on the commitments of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)… That we face multiple and convergent crises of growing inequality, undemocratic governance, a broken global financial system, and climate change. We affirm the importance of connecting the environmental sustainability, human rights, and anti-poverty agendas, while emphasising the necessity of our engagement in this political process.”

The success we have in building the world we want will depend on our ability to connect to the day-to-day struggles for social justice, human dignity and the basic rights that every person has to health, education and basic amenities. That’s about power. Our challenge is to connect our discourse in the forums that frame the negotiations to the streets, slums and villages where our people are. Only a tsunami of people’s struggles, based on local struggles and united behind a clear vision, as well as being defined by a clear strategy, will succeed in delivering the world we want. That means we need to stop being subjects and instead become active citizens.

Many of these debates are pertinent to us in South Africa. Across the board, people have lost confidence in the democratic process. Corruption and arrogance have tarnished the image of politics in our country. And this change permeates every aspect of our society. We need a new political narrative driven by an independent and robust civil society, which renews the vows that we made to our people in 1994.

Whether the fearlessness of our DNA in the struggle for freedom can be resurrected today depends on whether leaders can speak truth to power. DM


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