The challenges of today are South Africa’s opportunities of tomorrow


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

Democracy lies in our ability to protect the marginalised. To provide everyone with the dignity of labour, an education, and decent medical care to the aged and infirm. The real champions of democracy did not want accolades or streets named after them – they wanted to help the vulnerable. This is the awareness we need to take into Mangaung.

Two issues dominate the headlines in South Africa and the world this week. It’s the health of our iconic founding President Nelson Mandela and the race to Mangaung.

This reminds me of where it all unfolded – the taking of the solemn oath of office on the 10th May 1994. We stood tall. We were bursting with optimism. Mandela vowed on our behalf a commitment to our citizens to build a socially inclusive non-racial, non-sexist democracy. “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” I still feel that shiver of pride down my spine every time I hear that profound prophecy.

Where is South Africa today? Eighteen years into our democracy, we find ourselves like a teenager: unsure, unsteady and driven by hormones that are a rollercoaster of emotions, tenderness, brutality, glowing success and dastardly failures.

Where did we go wrong?

As part of the collective that went into the seat of government in 1994, I acknowledge my role in the crisis we face today. We demobilised our most powerful weapon in the fight for freedom; a robust citizenry and flourishing civil society. Our misplaced notions of the “development state” made people bystanders in their own development. We, the “developmental state”, would deliver houses, jobs, electricity, water, sanitation and everything our people needed.

We found that we did not have the institutional and human capacity to translate money into bricks and mortar. We face that challenge even today.

At the same time, we inherited the frills and benefits of the past. We were catapulted into a lifestyle that took the majority of leaders from the ghettoes where we lived into the leafy northern suburbs. A social distance materialised that has grown worse over the last two decades.

Development became state-driven and symbolised by the “big leader” who knew what was best for the people. Political arrogance became the hallmark of politics best symbolised by the crass “blue light brigade” and the rise of obscene materialism and consumption.

We have forgotten the key ingredient of the magic of the Mandela legacy; that we care about those who are vulnerable, hungry, unemployed, the ill, the elderly and the infirm; that all our children have a constitutional right to quality education and our people to quality health and safety.

That failure of memory in the post-Mandela era was best demonstrated by the denialism over HIV/AIDS. The deadly consequence was the epidemic of infection we experienced and the unnecessary deaths of over 350,000 citizens. It was only the courageous fight led by the Treatment Action Committee and COSATU and many committed NGOs, institutions, faith-based groups and progressive business that forced an arrogant regime to change its policy and provide ARVs to HIV-positive people.

To fight the AIDS denialism, we had gone back to our fighting traditions of the eighties and won a victory. We had used the multi-faceted strategy and tactics from our patient organising street by street to our legal actions to assert our Constitutional Rights. We built social mobilisation both in our communities and globally.

But despite that brave but all-too-brief blip in our political landscape, we have descended into business as usual. The political divisions and fierce contestation within our political movement is more about re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic’s deck than our struggle against poverty, inequality and unemployment. Our political crisis is dominated by “dirty money” and our politics are driven by the emissaries of billionaires. It is the system itself that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes.

There is a growing ferment in South Africa. The people in our townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits that they see a tiny elite enjoying – those who have long lost touch with the restlessness brewing in our society. To compound the situation, new predatory elite of middlemen, the storm troopers of corruption, is unashamedly corrupting state officials and stealing tenders and licenses.
They cloak their crime of looting the state treasuries with militant, populist rhetoric that in turn further inflames the already difficult reality. But they strike a chord with the growing underclass.

There is a legitimate anger at the obscenity of wealth inequality. The poor now well understand they are election fodder. As a new Apartheid grows, the horrified citizens of South Africa ask the question: “Why are we such a violent society?”

Are we are living in a cloud of ignorant, catastrophic denialism, as did the white minority of yesteryear?

In the absence of strong, legitimate political organisation, communities see violence as the only language their leaders will listen to. It’s is a vicious cycle that sees poor and forgotten people burning down any institution representing the state, whether a school, a library or a public building.

This genuine rage and resentment out there needs a genuine political solution.

A militarised, over-armed and poorly trained police force is increasingly mobilised as the battering ram of political enforcement. A narrow law and order approach will not work in this depressing context.

The growth of the platinum belt in North West Province, where Marikana is located, created an opportunity to develop the new non-racial towns of the future. Instead, all we saw was the mushrooming of informal settlements, racial divisions and the spatial planning of South Africa’s Apartheid past. As job seekers flooded in from all over the country the competition over scarce resources was inevitable. We ignored the festering discontent in the bosom of our economy.

As Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of COSATU, said at the organisation’s most recent National Congress: “The largest challenge facing COSATU and her affiliate unions, is the socio-economic disparity between the leadership and the workers.” He correctly pointed out that whilst he himself now has access to medical aid, lives in the suburbs of northern Johannesburg, his constituency cannot claim the same access to such luxuries. Workers feel that the unions and the leaders fail them by not prioritising their bread and butter issues, due to their pre-occupation with politics and seek solutions elsewhere.

The massacre at Marikana was a tipping point for our democracy as entire communities beyond it are now consumed by their mistrust in conventional democratic institutions that are mandated to lead. Reverend Colin Qiqimana, a clergyman that played an integral role in the resolving the Marikana stand-off, confided in me: “The community says that they will rather not vote again, because this government for which they voted is not willing to listen to them, they feel that it has forgotten about them.”

It is an indictment on us when the peoples’ faith in in democratic processes of elections dies.

Today 15 million South Africans are only saved from starvation by the social grants they receive every month. This cannot be a matter of pride when we know that our people deserve the right of human dignity of labour.

It is the perfect time for our leadership to return to basics, to listen to the concerns of their people and address them. The lesson to be learnt from the current instability is that once you lose the trust and the hope of the people, you lose the ability to lead.

We are entering a dangerous period in our fragile world.

We need to rethink our old models of leadership, democracy, education, work, economy and social organisation. The technological revolution will forever change the way we work, live, play and educate ourselves or access services from the public or private sectors.  The future of our economic success of is livelihoods and entrepreneurship. It means a fundamental shakeup of our education system.

It means that our public sector institutions must be independent of the insidious political interference we see today in the form of “cadre deployment” that undermines their effectiveness. It means that civil servants must to the jobs that we pay them or face the discipline of the state as an employer.

It is the time for us to break out of our comfort zones and embrace the impossible dream of a new politics of the 21st century. Now, more than ever before, we need not just new corporation-like arrangements, but a creative and innovative partnership between government, business, labour and the citizens.

I doubt that we need radical policies. What we need is a radical change in our sense of purpose. We need radicalism on tackling the rampant corruption that is the cancer eating at the soul of our nation. We need civil servants and politicians who understand that we elect and appoint you to serve the interests of the citizens. Our public treasuries are not a private slush fund.

That taxpayer’s money pays your teacher’s salary to be in school, prepared to teach and on time.

It means that being a Minister of Premier does not entitle you to special treatment. It means serving with humility and integrity. It means abandoning the obscenity of the blue light brigade that citizens find offensive.

If you serve in a clinic, hospital, home affairs office or social grant pay-out, it is to understand that you do not have the right to levy a charge or demand a bribe for a job we pay you for.

It is about restoring our moral compass as a nation that every life has equal value; that we should care that thousands of girls in our schools are raped by teachers in whose care we entrust them; that many miss school during menstruation because the toilets are in such a disgusting state. 

Our real enemy is not the media. NGOs that fight for the constitutional rights of our pupils to have textbooks, toilets, laboratories and libraries; our clinics where the ill, elderly and infirm find caring staff and medicines – that is the democracy we fought for and that so many sacrificed so much for. So for those in our movement who invoke the memory of Chief Luthuli, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, OR Tambo, Ahmed Kathrada or Nelson Mandela, please remember that these comrades wanted no medals, no statues and no streets to be named after them.

Theirs was a selfless sacrifice to serve the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable and the excluded. Look around and you see the evidence that much of that still exists for the vast majority of our people. While it will take generations to eradicate the vestiges of the heinous system of Apartheid, much of what is wrong can be placed directly at the feet of my generation. 

It happened on our watch.

That is the challenge for Mangaung. We have the opportunity to reverse the stark tide that sweeps across our land. We can re-ignite the flame of Madiba that represented the epitome of humility, the anti-thesis for the political arrogance and meaningless rhetoric.
We can allow our iconic leader the peace that he has left the country in the right hands as he enters the final stage of his journey of an extra-ordinary life in an extra-ordinary country.

As Mandela articulated in his inaugural address, “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other forms of discrimination.”

I believe we, as South Africans, owe our founding father that we live up individually and collectively to that pledge. DM