Twenty years: a milestone; a journey from the darkness of authoritarianism to the light of democratic governance. We should be celebrating. We should be dancing in the streets. We should be thanking our lucky stars. And yet, across South Africa, no one seems much in the mood for a party.
Before we understand why that might be, we need to ask a fundamental question: are our lives better twenty years into democracy?
The answer is a decisive “yes”.
We have made progress in extending basic services such as water, electricity, housing, education and health to millions who were excluded by Apartheid on the basis of race. We are a Constitutional democracy at the heart of which lies a commitment to justice and the unrestricted right to free speech, assembly and organisation.
We will never, ever again allow an arrogant regime to steal our human dignity. But we need to ask another, vital question: could we have achieved more in last two busy, bustling decades?
The answer, again, is an unequivocal “yes”.
Our poorest communities burn and seethe in much the same way as they did during Apartheid. There is a divide between the haves and the have-nots that widens by the minute. Our leaders are inaccessible and out of touch. We are not yet united in purpose or in outlook. Today, we are a nation on the ropes.
Which brings us to our third and, in some ways, the most painful question: what forces have thrown us off course, and sullied our boundless potential?
It is a tragedy of terrible proportions, but South Africa’s leadership has let us down. Our politicians show contempt for their public office—being elected seems to instil in them the notion that they are somehow born to rule over us, that citizens are subjects, and that any criticism of their behavior is an act of lèse-majesté.
The honeymoon of the liberation struggle ended when our politicians became beholden to forces other than those that elected them into office. They gave up on us, and in turn, we have given up on them.
An endless litany of scandals has left us exhausted. I’ve visited assaulted communities like Bekkersdal, where I’ve experienced the neglect and impunity that is driving a slew of increasingly violent protests. And I’ve come to a realisation—South Africa is burning while our politicians tune out in a daze of self-congratulatory denialism.
The quadruple evils of joblessness, poverty, rising inequality and corruption are sinking the country in a quagmire of recidivism. We go backwards and downwards, while the wealthiest among us move forwards and upwards.
StatsSA noted that in 2013, unemployment amongst black people reached 40%. The bulk of these are youth in our townships and rural areas. Our education crisis has left them with few skills and no hope that one day they will find the dignity of labour. They are angry, and that leaves them prey to those who promise quick fixes. They want jobs and basic service delivery.
Meanwhile, their “champions” promise nationalised banks and mines.
While we celebrate the social security net that provides one in three South Africans a grant that keeps them out of absolute poverty, we cannot fail to see that, if we don’t create concrete pathways out of poverty for the next generation, we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction.
We must improve the performance of our civil service and tackle corruption. While the recent “20 Year Review”, released on March 11 of this year, lauds the country’s progress, it also identifies the fault-lines where people meet government: “Poor recruitment practices and political interference in appointments have further complicated matters at municipal level.” I’d say.
So, are we done? Is this it for South Africa?
Not even close. We have options. We have choices. None of them are easy, but all of them are real.
A fourth question: What is to be done?
Recently, an academic named Thomas Piketty blew up the world. No single thinker since perhaps Milton Friedman has had such a transformative effect on our economic outlook. Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, newly translated from the French, is a systematic breakdown of what ails postmodern capitalism. In short, Piketty warns that, due to massive gaps in equality between the richest and the poorest, all the gains we made in the twentieth century are set to disappear, and by the end of this century, the world will be divided just as it was when Louis XVI was running France.
Piketty has his detractors, but we in South Africa know that his basic message is not only prescient, but probably conservative in how long it will take before our leaders are untouchable nobility, and the majority of the population forage in the dirt for their scraps.
At the core of the issue is the fact that wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, while the political and economic elites merge to create an unbreakable oligarchy. Foment grows. So does civil strife. The State fails to deliver and in a context where there is very little credible organisation on the ground, violence becomes the only language that communities feel will alert of their leaders to their legitimate grievances.
And so the cycle and counter cycle of violence leads to failed societies. And the illusory bubble of stability—as evinced by the comforts of Sandton or Constantia—explodes.
Viewing Piketty’s thesis through the narrow lens of South Africa 20 years after democracy, we can begin to understand our current struggle in very simple terms: where once we threw all of our resources into battling the injustice of Apartheid, our new enemy is the injustice of inequality.
Thankfully, the fight against Apartheid offers us many lessons in this new war. Think of how organised we were. Think of the structures struggle parties built from the ground up, the networks they maintained in exile, the chains of communication when mobile phones, Skype, Twitter and Facebook were but science fiction. Think of the workers’ movement, which I was part of—the countless hours of negotiation that led to millions of South Africans marching in step.
We knew what we wanted; we had a broad consensus; we fought for our rights. And we won.
The fight against inequality demands the same commitment. It demands that we rise up and get what is owed to us—simply, our basic human rights. It means that we have to use the rule of law as a tool for our empowerment. We need to lawyer up, and we need to build civil society institutions that speak for all South Africans under a common purpose—to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and to stem the inexorable rise of inequality before it engulfs us all.
This is our fight. It means that all of us have to engage, just as so many South Africans did under Apartheid. We’re only half done in building a society that benefits the majority. Twenty years ago, we thought that we’d won, but we hadn’t. We learned that freedom is hard and continuous work, and requires immense responsibility. We learned that we cannot outsource our morality and our rights to a government that is designed to function in its own best interests.
We learned that most important of lessons: citizenship is an active, and not a passive role.
As Madiba reminded us in his inaugural address, “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
Twenty years after the golden dawn of our democracy, we should take the time to celebrate all we’ve gained. Then we need to put our collective shoulders against the might of our new enemy. It is now time to become South Africans, in the truest sense of the term: a nation of citizens, working and fighting for a common purpose—a decent life for all. DM
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