Defend Truth


We must rise from the rest of complacency and reject political pessimism and indifference


Kgalema Motlanthe is a former President of South Africa who served between 25 September 2008 and 9 May 2009, following the resignation of Thabo Mbeki.

We need to reignite our commitment to this country’s founding democratic values, to think about its connection to the African continent, and to primarily consider the principled leadership that this historical epoch calls for, and the collective action required from all of us to restore a vision for an African and global future that is truly inclusive and just in character.

The rationale that springs forth from the prerequisite conditions for the possibility and necessity of such regeneration of our society and restoration of our common humanistic vision is made self-evident when we apprehend present-day realities in their unfiltered form.

It is made transparent when we comprehend the vast chasms that continue to deepen the societal fissures that are born of our brittle and brutal history.

Furthermore, it is made urgent by the swelling cries of the multi-fold communities within our society, who through an amalgamation of tenacity, hope, frustration and anguish, repeatedly lay bare how their lived realities are coloured by oppression, indignity and inequality in our democratic era.

In moments when the tensions of our republic lie on the surface, we are required to ask: “What does democracy mean in the lives of all of our citizens?”

One of the answers that emerge is that democracy has multiple meanings and is unevenly experienced. Such a fact cannot be countenanced, however, from it we can begin to delineate the outlines of the action that is required to bring a more even quality to democracy’s experiential character.

What, then, is to be done of such urgent circumstances, and how do we advance the prescripts of a free, equal and just society?

We are required, by our collective conscience and the ethics we purport to subscribe to, to act to address the vast constellation of issues that trouble our maturing democracy and threaten the still tenuous foundations of both the post-colonial and post-apartheid state.

In whatever we do, our strategic goal as a nation is the building of a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, just and prosperous society and continent.

In terms of this exercise of rebuilding our nation and by extension our continent, Oxfam has an illustrious history for which some acknowledgement is in order.

For over 70 years Oxfam has been engaged in such strategic goals, as an international advocacy group focused on addressing challenges of under-development, through centring the interwoven complexities of poverty and equality.

In this regard, I wish to congratulate Oxfam on the official launch of the South African chapter of this esteemed organisation, and on the work that has already been carried out since its local birth.

Considering its global reach, Oxfam has had a measured impact on the lives of millions of people across the international society.

In joining your vision to create “a just world without poverty” and mission “to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice”; it is evident that such founding ideals intersect with the values that every democratic society should seek to bring into fruition, driven by a progressive agenda.

It is critical that we recall the ethical and moral mandates that govern our consciousness, as these beliefs, central tenets and foundational values act as our critical compass when we seem to be losing our way.

Any meaningful constitutional democracy is reliant on a capable and thriving civil society, active citizenry and engaged and ethical business sector, all of which collaboratively hold those in power accountable, defend the constitution, the rule of law and advocate for the marginalised, silenced and vulnerable in society.

From the viewpoint of the African continent, Oxfam has helped create conditions of possibility for the above social forces to thrive to the extent possible in the enhancement of the quality of democracy on the African continent.

Locally, the initiatives, campaigns and reports that Oxfam has produced and pursues, from considering the experiences of women within the economy, to climate and economic justice and governance, evidence a will to ensure that our remarkable Constitution is made a living document for all South Africans, and reveal the unequal calibrations of our society.

Such endeavours continue a long line of activism – variegated along the vicissitudes of history – that is committed to the ideals of a free, equal and just society.

The creation of such a society cannot be taken for granted. It requires constant protection and labour to ensure its sustainable maintenance, particularly in times when ethical, moral and just leadership is being called into question or is in danger of being taken for granted.

We find ourselves, more than 23 years after the inauguration of our democracy, living in such times.

It is meaningful to note that in undertaking such reflections, we are undoubtedly not alone. Continentally, we are joined by our fellow Africans in considering how the post-colonial experience has been tainted by morally compromised leadership, corruption, lack of ethics and therefore poor governance. All these have not only compromised the future of millions of poor, working class, peasant, and young Africans, but have also, by so doing, betrayed the noble vision nurtured over decades if not centuries of struggle for human freedom.

Many of our states arrived at the initial post-colonial moment buoyed by the euphoric exultations of independence. We anticipated the achievement of freedom, just as we knew that it marked the beginnings of a long journey. In doing so, we were hopeful that a new experience of African humanity would mark the democratic era.

It has become apparent that post-colonial African society will not easily shake off the shackles of history, as we continue to bear witness to the desecration of the emergent, noble ideals at the heart of our emergent democracies, the dissipation of political culture and how the leaders who had brought us out of autocracy continue to sink into the pitfalls of power, and both actively and passively participate in the continued debasement of the oppressed.

As Joel Netshitenzhe once noted: “The chant of yesteryear which was starting to recede in the memory today rings truer than ever before, and that chant is ‘the struggle continues’.”

That the popular struggle song invokes recognition of collective responsibility for the state of our society is a critical consciousness of our shared accountability.

Joint responsibility for the state of our society is an obligation that falls on us all, but for those who have any measure of power it is more heavily weighted, as we are required to mobilise such power towards noble ends: for the public good and to ensure that those who are unaided and rendered powerless through multiple means, are protected against the unspeakable ills that continue to befall them.

Among the unspeakable ills that strangulate society today is the spectre of gendered abuse, where the daily subordination of women culminates in gross acts of physical abuse, including death. We have witnessed many such cases over the last week or so, with the 22- year-old Karabo Mokoena’s life snuffed out in the most brutal manner imaginable, allegedly at the hands of her partner. The same fate befell Courtney Pieters, Lindokuhle Kota, Sinoxolo Mafevuka, Candice Alberts and many more.

We are required, by such reprehensible acts, to note the systemic, institutionalised injustice that continues to underscore women’s experiences in our country.

Statistics shows that South Africa’s femicide rate is five times higher than the average global figures. Intimate partner violence permeates our culture and women in our society live in a state of constant fear, a fact that should never be countenanced, ignored nor dismissed. Such a stage of siege detracts from the South African women’s human rights, and makes mockery of our Constitution.

Consequently, such gender injustice intersects with other inequalities and stratifications in our society that challenge the democratic foundations that we are continuously building.

To consider the kind of just leadership that is required in this contemporary moment, it is imperative to note the conditions that underscore our society.

At the dawn of our democracy, much was made of the fact that South Africa did not descend into the civil war that was prophesied by many who thought that the inauguration of a democratic dispensation was an impossible objective.

War, in its complexly unofficial form, had been the reality for many years. Battles were fought on multiple fronts, families were separated, lives were lost and many were irrevocably changed by apartheid’s laws and prescripts.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now observe that we arrived at democracy imbued with an ambitious optimism – defying pessimistic beliefs. Whilst conscious of the incredible, unwavering and selfless actions of so many, who had fought to bring us to that point, we were profoundly hopeful that the society we sought to realise would be birthed, at all costs.

Our jubilant arrival at the doors of democracy has now been replaced by a realisation that our transition remains inchoate.

Divisions among us repeatedly threaten social cohesion of our country.

Most worrisome, for many, has been the present political crisis, which is characterised by an absence of ethical, moral and just leadership.

In these times, frankness is required.

Such candour cannot be silenced by those who view disagreement as ill-discipline, estrangement or hostility. Divergence and discord is essential to ensure that we move the markers of progress forward, and do not become complacent or convinced of our infallibility as leaders within our states.

We currently find ourselves in a time where open and ruggedly robust national discourse is experiencing a deficit. This is concerning as continual national reflection both enables us to understand ourselves and each other better, develop a cultivated outlook on history as well as fashion a sophisticated reading of the present as the basis for building the united, transformed society that we seek.

When freedom dawned, we cooperatively committed to ensuring that all had access to public goods and the enjoyment of hard-won rewards of collective struggle. Such commitments are preserved in the founding documents of our society, the cornerstone of which is our remarkably inclusive constitution. Such public and legally enshrined undertakings and assurances are central to the humanist values of the founders of our republic.

As a nation, we are legally and morally required to adhere to their doctrines and pursue the vision they safeguard. We are called upon to do so at a time where public concerns about our future grow more vociferous.

South Africans find themselves laying their heads to rest at night and wondering what changes might await them when morning breaks. The very meaning of democracy places the people at the centre of its definition.

Our democracy is presently facing numerous pressing challenges that extend to the very heart of its governance and leadership and touch every aspect of South African life.

As the Constitutional Court once described, our country remains:

‘‘A deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge.”

This is, notably, a disturbing realisation, but one that we cannot hide from, if we wish to undertake the hard task of realigning our collective compasses, in the pursuit of a more equal and just society.

In recalling the mutual responsibility I referred to earlier, we are reminded that we collectively encompass the “we, the people” referred to in the first lines of our Constitution.

In doing so, however, history demands that we simultaneously appreciate that such a people is not composed of an amorphous mass, but comprises a collective of very different people living under starkly diverse conditions, which necessitates our united labour to bridge the gaps that still exist between us.

(The year) 1994 created a democracy that has yet to be consolidated, and must always be challenged, kept secure and enhanced. Our ultimate collective goal is to deepen and advance democracy and ensure that no one is left behind or outside its prescripts and promises.

The importance of civil society, activism, advocacy and an engaged citizenry is evident in this era, where socio-political issues see their contemporary echoes in numerous states across the globe, many of whom are wrestling with populism and the teething problems and growing pains of maturing democracies.

Thus, it becomes ever-more important that we reinforce our connection to each other, across state lines, oceans and borders, as doctrines of separateness are being strengthened and resurfacing in the service of reprehensible ends.

While we face difficult times, it is critical that our hope for the future is not extinguished, and that we do not sink into the dejected stagnation of apathy.

What of the African leadership in general?

Historically, African liberation parties have proven capable of changing the course of history: through their manifold struggles for change, supporting oppressed communities, and advocating change in oppressive circumstances.

As they have taken up office, many have regrettably fallen into the sins of incumbency – forgetting that they remain accountable to the people who put them in office and are responsible for delivering constitutionally mandated services. Whilst they have inaugurated measurable change, it is evident that many citizens continue to go systematically ignored, unheard and unseen.

The major issues that Oxfam globally seeks to address, namely “inequality, discrimination, and unequal access to resources including food, water, and land”, are deeply resonant in African societies. These issues are constantly pulsating through our discourses, realities and cultures and threatening the lifeblood of our nations, resources and ordinary Africans.?

It is no secret that we live in immensely stratified societies, where race, class and gender lines continue to divide our access to income, wealth, education, employment and public services. Cavernous gaps of unequal access to public goods and basic needs can be directly traced to structural causes that infiltrate every aspect of personhood in our states.

Consequently, to coincide with the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, Oxfam published a report that called for a “human economy that works for the 99%”. Such a call is made in light of statistics that reveals the extent of extreme wealth, the creation of which hinges on extreme poverty.

Locally, this report found that “three billionaires in South Africa have the same wealth as the bottom 50% of the population, while South Africa’s richest 1% owns 42% of the country’s total wealth”.

In the face of such economic and social separation we are called to construct a new sense of connectedness, driven by our commonality. This sense of community is embedded in the spirit of Ubuntu/buno/botho that requires a radical sense of togetherness and is founded on an integrated humanity. This sense should underscore the way our societies are governed, and infuse our every interaction.

This will require that we rise from the rest of complacency and reject political pessimism and indifference. When observing the multi-fold challenges that persist, it is easy to descend into the pit of fatalist mentalities. However, there is still hope, there is still possibility and there is still potential for change.

As found in the recent Oxfam paper on taxation, our continent is home to more than half of the top ten most unequal countries: South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Central Africa Republic’ comprise six of our world’s most inequitable societies.

The realisation of this reality is an invitation to reconsider the structure and form of our economies given the failure of self-regulation to deliver the economic transformation that our post-colonial societies require, nor to deliver the economic revolution that was promised to its people.

As our continent develops, it is becoming increasingly evident that a rise in GDP alone is incapable of single-handedly renovating the landscape of our divided societies. Oxfam’s response to this conundrum has been to propose that African leaders build a more “human economy” to tackle inequality and poverty, that is founded on the idea of truly “inclusive growth”.

The report An economy for the 99% states:

The very design of our economies and the principles of our economics have taken us to this extreme, unsustainable and unjust point. Our economy must stop excessively rewarding those at the top and start working for all people. Accountable and visionary governments, businesses that work in the interests of workers and producers, a valued environment, women’s rights and a strong system of fair taxation, are central to this more human economy.”

Consequently, I seek to take these claims seriously in considering the task facing African leaders from every sector.

African leaders are tasked with ensuring that the citizens of their states experience meaningful change in their material, social and economic circumstances of their daily lives.

Distressingly, we find ourselves at this point in contemporary South Africa, where present interventions into our political malaise are dominated by talk of state capture. The government and state are respectively being abused towards kleptocratic ends.

State resources are being used for personal gain and personal networks are having devastating consequence for our economy. In these times, it is the most downtrodden within our democracy who feel the most acute effects of such deplorable acts.

Those in power have to hold themselves to the high ethical standards that they pledged fidelity to through the duration of the struggle for liberation. Once in government, we have to guard ourselves against the pursuit of individual material benefits and being sucked into the vortex of political and ethical degeneration.

Systemic corruption, in all sectors of society, and its expression of individualism, greed and selfishness are inexcusable and challenges the very bases of our ethical and moral responsibilities as leaders in multiple fields. It goes against the fundamental tenets of democracy, as it shakes the foundations of a society meant to be founded on equality, freedom and justice.

In the light of this depressing picture in our country, what can South Africans do?

We cannot leave the attainment of freedom in its fullest expression to the future, while we feast on the fruits of incumbency and designate our current challenges to those who will come after us.

The challenges that we face require that we act now, and that we act collectively, as our African populations cannot be fed with the slogans and jargon that characterise our public discourses, but require being met with action and a realisation of the future promised to them so many years ago.

The kind of South Africa (and Africa) that we seek to create is no doubt one that is free from all scourges, which includes racism, classism, regionalism, sexism, xenophobia, tribalism and every other kind of discrimination that pursues the stratification of people into different levels of humanity.

In saying this, it would be remiss not to refer to the xenophobic divisions in South African society that prevent us from attaining an inclusive African consciousness and humanistic outlook.

The Pan-Africanist leader Kwame Nkrumah once stated that “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of the African continent”. This is the kind of collective humanist consciousness that is required from all of us, where no state and no one can be left behind and allowed to wallow in post-colonial decay without any assistance or attention.

In seeking to understand the effects of South African political leadership and the recourse that its absence requires, Joel Netshitenzhe once asked: “… what do we do in a situation in which the state is unable to give leadership?”

I would like to suggest that perhaps the foundations of developing an answer to this question can be found in the words of the late president Nelson Mandela, who stated:

It is the dictate of history to bring to the fore the kind of leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed.” DM

Kgalema Motlanthe delivered this address at the launch of Oxfam South Africa.


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