As the youth of our country, yours is a legitimate struggle for free education and your broader rights. I honour you for courageously placing on our agenda of the real issues we should be debating in our country. You feel that my generation has betrayed you, has let you down. And frankly on many fronts, and with benefit of a hindsight, I agree with you.
This is the text of Jay Naidoo’s address at The Holy Trinity Church, 18.10.2016.
Thank you, Father Pugin. Your courage and commitment to the struggle for justice is a shining example of solidarity and the humanity each of us should replicate to make our country great. The Holy Trinity Catholic Church has always been a safe and sacred space for difficult conversations. Today I feel honoured to share this platform with you and humbled to be in the midst of all present.
Thank you to ASAWU for convening this meeting. Firstly, as a citizen and former trade union organiser I am honoured to be invited by a union representing academics in Wits. Your framework for building unity is a good basis for this conversation; in fact, it’s long overdue. The progressive intelligentsia needs to be organised again and to reassert its fundamental right to also shape the political narrative in our country.
Too many of us, as citizens and leaders, past and present, have been silent for too long. Our country is not working for the majority of our people. It is working though for a predatory elite who are drunk on power and greed.
I come from an era when it was also not working, when a brutal oligarchy served only a white minority.
As the youth of our country, yours is a legitimate struggle for free education and your broader rights. I honour you for courageously placing on our agenda the real issues we should be debating in our country. You feel that my generation has betrayed you, has let you down. And frankly on many fronts, and with benefit of a hindsight, I agree with you. We made mistakes. And we have to correct them today. Together. United. Learning from history to build a society based on the values of equality, dignity and freedom for all.
I know you face police brutality. You are arrested, tear-gassed, demonised and wounded. I know you don’t want just another talk shop. You don’t want to be lectured at. You want genuine debate, on agreeing the terms of an end to violence, winning the peace and embarking on a comprehensive negotiation on fixing up the whole education system, from early childhood, to basic to the tertiary sector needs. I support that.
So I offer, with humility, a few lessons from my era. I was taught by workers living a brutalised hostel existence how to go to battle and what I was battling against. I was taught to fight, but more importantly I was taught how to listen. Collectively with other formations of our people, we shut the country down, and then we defeated the apartheid regime.
But at some point in our democracy, we outsourced our engagement as citizens. We became bystanders. We gave up our power that freed our country to the political leaders. The time has now come for us to reclaim that power. The time has now come to say to our leaders in government, business, and even in our unions, that we do not elect leaders so they become drunk on power and money. We elect leaders to serve the citizens of South Africa.
So today, as I stand here, I have this horrible sense of déjà vu. I feel we’re slipping back to the trenches of our past. I see many people living under siege, working in a volatile, fractured society. And instead of focusing on the real issues that face our people, one in three of whom will go to bed hungry tonight, or the one in four who are unemployed, we talk past each other.
Because it is convenient. Because we are not listening. We stopped listening a long time ago. But when we don’t listen to each other, our universities will burn. Our country will burn. And we will again be guilty of betraying the many generations who follow us.
We are a relatively rich country. Our current political leaders want to spend a trillion rand on a nuclear deal we don’t need and certainly we cannot afford. They racked up, in terms of the AG’s report, R25-billion in irregular expenditure, which is a sanitised way of describing the term “sleaze”.
And the same current political leaders say the state has no money for education of our children. Utter nonsense. We need to tax the wealthy. In particular, we need to tax the obscene bonuses our executives award themselves in both the private and public sectors. We don’t need luxury cars for our officials any longer. We don’t need any more Nkandlas and Saxonwolds. We don’t need mediocre executives in our SOEs constantly needing a lifeline of a bailout while collecting salaries on par with Goldman Sachs and the 1% who control our world.
The guiding principle of South Africa’s Constitution requires the democratic state to use public resources and the annual budget process as a redistributive mechanism to truly transform our highly unequal society. To do this is to bring the bottom up, not take the top higher. And that bottom, the underclass, is getting bigger, angrier and restless today.
They don’t need anyone’s permission to start a revolution. You the next generation must find your voice, your struggle and your future.
But what we need today, above all else, is ethical leadership, steady hands and calm minds who can navigate us through turbulent times in the spirit of our shared humanity.
Let me share with you some lessons on leadership that I learnt in the past.
Union activists of the ‘80s were educators first, and organisers second. The reason why the union movements started off working with migrant workers who lived in brutalised conditions in the overcrowded hostels is epically depicted by what Steve Biko said to us, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
But we knew that to lose our chains we had to organise first, co-create a vision, strategy and tactics of how to fight. And I understood that, first and foremost, as a student activist coming into the union movement that I had to learn to listen to the people I was working with. And they taught me how to organise.
Simple lessons. In a democracy power and authority is derived from the people’s consent. Leadership is derived from a constituency. And power derives from having legitimacy on the ground. That means you earn leadership through hard, painstaking work. You work on a mandate, you report back. You never leave your constituency behind.
Leadership is not just about leaders but leadership they earned through democratic processes in which ordinary people play a vital central role. Good leaders understand the relationship between unity and struggle – they struggle for unity and use that unity to prosecute the struggle – constantly winning hearts and minds of its and the wider constituency through democratic persuasion.
I learnt, painfully, that the State is always better armed that its citizens will ever be. So we studied Sun Tzu who wrote the manual on The Art of War more than 2,600 years ago; that victory comes from knowing when to attack and when to avoid battle; victory comes from everyone sharing the same goals; victory comes from having a capable commander who has the mandate and support of his troops; and lastly to know your enemy but above all know yourself – your strengths and weaknesses. Then your fight will be successful and pain will be avoided as much as possible.
I learnt that your role as a leader was not to impose ideas from the top. It was hard work and often frustrating. We did not have tools like e-mails, Facebook and Twitter. We lived in a police state. Today, we are the most connected generation ever. We televise the revolutions, social network the military coups. But I am yet to find a country run by Facebook and Twitter. Nothing, in my mind, replaces the difficult challenge of careful and meaningful work of uniting our people, building organisation and winning and securing the peace to go forward.
Today we live in a democracy in which social justice and human dignity is at the heart of our democracy. We have a right to meet here today, to organise ourselves and to speak our minds. In fact, I am honoured to share this platform with the distinguished Thuli Madonsela, who above all represents the true essence of our Constitution which enshrines these rights.
But our democracy comes with responsibilities to each other and to the future generations who will pass through Wits and all of our universities. We do not, and can never, represent the sum total of all history.
Our universities, like every institution, factory floor or organisation, are a continuous struggle site. It’s where we build unity and power. We realised in the past that burning the factory down meant workers were burning their jobs, they then were dispersed, were blacklisted. We lost power on the shop floor and it took many years to rebuild.
In war they say that you must destroy the town in order to drive the enemy away. Bomb the bridges, bomb the dams, bomb the radio stations, destroy the farms, destroy the schools. And when the enemy is driven out you march triumphantly into the town or what’s left of it. In the words of a US military statement during the Vietnam War, “in order to save the village, we had to destroy it”.
Whatever was built by the people over decades now is occupied by the so-called liberators but lies in ruins. Hence the lesson for soldiers and all of us – it’s easy to invade but difficult to occupy.
We inflict injury on ourselves. Violence becomes the language of engagement. I have worked in failed states across the world. I have a thousand horror stories we never want to talk about in our beautiful country.
Our Constitution, deep in its heart, embraces the principles of social justice and human dignity and gives us rights. It gives us the power and the tools to pursue these objectives. We must use the Constitution to enforce our people’s inalienable claim to free quality education, health, water and all other basic rights.
But we do need to learn from history. I was part of the 1976 generation. We were triumphant when Soweto exploded. But by 1977 we were smashed. Our leader, Steve Biko, was murdered, and thousands went to jail, fled into exile or underground. On this day 40 years ago – Black Wednesday – we were all on the run as the regime banned all organisations within the Black Consciousness Movement. Also on this day, a great African patriot, Samora Machel, was murdered.
We asked ourselves the tough question: Why did we fail?
It took soul searching. We realised that we were not the vanguard. We had left our parents, the workers, the women, the religious and rural communities behind. They understood our anger. They were angry that their children were dying in their hundreds.
They stood besides us as individuals, like we do today. But like then, as now, individual bravery cannot defeat a well armed state.
We realised that we had to go down and work at building the mass base of our freedom struggle. That’s why we organised a tsunami of mass rolling action, united under the UDF and Cosatu and marshalled tens of thousands of grassroots movements, civics, unions, women’s, youth, student, health, education and rural organisations under the clear message of one person, one vote in a democratic, non-racial, non sexist SA.
That’s why in the similar education crisis in the ‘80s, with troops occupying our schools and townships, we united parents, teachers, academics, unions and communities under the NECC that marshalled our forces and united us.
The 1990 release of Mandela unleashed powerful forces intent on destabilising any path to democracy. Our country tethered on the brink of a massive civil war. Hundreds were killed every week, flung out of trains, murdered in their sleep in their homes or assassinated in the streets. We never want to go back there.
More than 10,000 people were killed, with no end in sight. We needed a solution. We had to secure the peace. It is always the innocent who are caught in the crossfire of violence. And no peace is won, anywhere in the world, in all of history, where violence is the goal and the endgame. We lose the war the moment we lose the confidence of our constituency and public opinion.
So we drew from our experiences as trade unionists. We knew having built power we had to be strategic as to how to use it against our enemy.
Our people fighting a daily battle for survival didn’t have the time or energy in endless battles in which we don’t go forward. But we had to curb the power of the enemy. We knew signing a Peace Accord just between leaders would do little to secure the peace on the ground.
We also knew that the violence which had its roots in the political conflict between us and the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal could not be solved just in that province. It had become national, endemic and needed a national solution that was rooted in the local affairs.
On September 14, 1991, The National Peace Accord codified the principles of freedom of speech, assembly and association. A well-resourced secretariat at a national, regional and local level, supported by thousands of peace monitors drawn from all political parties and trained in conflict resolution, was instrumental in building peace from the grassroots, and ensuring that many conflicts were solved at a local level.
We had to build a consensus on political tolerance street by street, factory by factory, and township by township on resolving conflict through dialogue. I remember countless meetings in the police station with the security force commanders, representatives of the warring parties with the churches and business representatives, negotiating the holding of mass marches, voter education drives and rallies.
Thousands of peace monitors drawn from all political parties were trained as peace marshals and played a sterling role in working as a team to ensure peace at a local level and settle political disputes. This was a campaign for peace that organised the majority in active participation and curbed the extremist factions in all parties that wanted to inflame violence.
Of course many hours of tough discussions took place in the mass democratic movement. We had to fight for peace against a fully armed enemy that wanted, and benefited from, war. The hard-won National Peace Accord was a consequence of the violence and the slaughter of our people. We countered the prevailing narrative of the time that this was “black on black” violence and created community-based legitimate leadership structures to win and secure the peace in communities.
We put in place mechanisms to monitor and report the actions of the apartheid state security forces and hold them accountable.
This created the conditions for a negotiation to take place. These structures evolved into mass voter education committees that led to the first democratic elections on April 27, 1994 to elect a constituent assembly to draft the new Constitution that has given us the right to meet here, to criticise our government and to fight for the rights we have that are enshrined in our Constitution.
And yet, more than 20 years later, we have to tackle privilege and the rise of inequality. We have to fix a broken system of governance and challenge the citadels of monopoly capital that continue to exclude the overwhelming majority. We have to stand up and be counted, each and every one of us. No individual, organisation or sector can do this on its own.
While there are many challenges that face us in our country, I caution you all not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have worked in many failed states where millions are still displaced, where rape is a weapon of war, and where recovery from war takes decades.
Let us not go there.
It’s not where the majority of our people want to go. If you want to save the country, don’t destroy it and then leave this to the next generation to rebuild, because it may never happen. Education and training is both a terrain of struggle and co-operation. I truly believe that over the past years there is a lot of consensus built on the way forward out of this education crisis.
Let us all take stock of that consensus – and one very important building block of that consensus is Section 29 of our Constitution on the right to education and the obligations of the state. Let us use this consensus to build and win the struggle for maximum unity across the country and across sectors. Then let us use this to also identify those areas where further consensus is needed and develop a broad plan and popular campaign towards a peaceful, sustainable and permanent solution.
This will be your legacy for the next generation of students currently in primary and high schools. If we do our work well then in the decades to come, we can all look back with pride with what your generation has done.
I hear the sentiment many express that “I am prepared to die for what I believe”. I understand that anger. I was like that when I was your age. But no one can talk from the grave. And no one wants another fellow South African to die.
As an Elder, I support the demand you make and call for a genuine intergeneration dialogue and negotiation. I feel your pain. I stand beside you in that call.
Let us think, plan, act and remain together. We can do this. The country, the world is watching and waiting for us. DM
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