Defend Truth


Active citizenship and good governance – how do we get there?


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

How do we move forward in the current South African crisis? How do we transform in meaningful ways, to go from a society “becoming” to one which is comfortable in its own skin?

This is an edited extract of the annual Frederik van Zyl Slabbert Honorary lecture, delivered this year at the University of Stellenbosch by Judith February.

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (Idasa) was founded in 1987 by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine. They were members of the opposition, in what became known as “the last White Parliament”.

It was certainly unique because of its unconventional roots. Slabbert and Boraine, sensing the impasse of the complex time that was the late 80s understood the political moment better than most. Idasa sought to build dialogue between the Afrikaner establishment and the ANC in exile and within South Africa. Two of its most significant meetings were held in Dakar in 1987. That in fact formed Idasa’s own deep roots. The 61, mostly White, Afrikaners met with then banned ANC leaders in exile to talk through the possibility of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Africa.

Needless to say, it would be a while yet before a non-racial, democratic South Africa became a reality, but Dakar was a significant moment.  As Max Du Preez wrote recently, while reflecting on his own participation at Dakar: “What did it all mean? Did the Dakar Safari have any impact?” Opinions differ, but here’s what Du Preez believed:

The impact was purely symbolic, but significant. It firmly cemented the desirability of a peaceful negotiated settlement in the minds of the PW Botha government and the white public, as well as in the minds of the decision makers in the ANC and UDF. It went a long way in undoing the demonisation of both sides. It subverted the ‘communist, terrorist’ narrative Botha and his men had imposed for so long on the white electorate. The Dakar initiative was followed up with several Idasa-organised meetings between the ANC in exile and business people, writers, students and other groups over the next three years. Talking had become fashionable.”

So where do we find ourselves now? What is the state of our nation in 2017?

Since Dakar and beyond, South Africa has gone through the euphoria of the first election in 1994, the ups and downs of transition and is now swinging between hope and despair in a state captured by corruption and cronyism of the worst kind. In many ways we are still a country in the throes of transition.

For all its ups and down, however, the important fact is that South Africa is now a constitutional democracy. But despite that, the challenges remain and, at times, appear almost intractable. While the formal transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 is often heralded as peaceful and smooth when viewed in institutional and procedural terms, there are deep and lingering problems. Our social compact, fragile as it was, is fraying badly. I would argue that the vacuum of leadership in South Africa has exacerbated the dire socio-economic situation we are in and almost crippled the ability of our society to deal constructively with its challenges. As Noami Klein says, “politics hates a vacuum. Into the vacuum oft-times anything and everything falls – fear or hate falls or sometimes simply misunderstanding – and in its worst form, ignorance and violence. So in these times of crisis – especially so- we must therefore keep on making the arguments for greater political accountability and transparency – and also for better leadership and active citizenship.

Several challenges remain as we seek to entrench rights and indeed the supremacy of what is increasingly becoming contested terrain – the Constitution itself. Part of this is political opportunism, but part of it is also our failure (collectively) to ensure that there is proper constitutional education and that the language of rights becomes more popularised. Recently, it has become fashionable to question the 1994 Constitutional / negotiated settlement and its outcome.

The starting point it seems should always be the Constitution. It represents the framework around which everything else pivots. Despite the criticism of the Constitution – it has been much maligned even by the very ANC that fought for its adoption and was deeply involved in its writing process of course – to me it remains the lodestar, the aspirational document our Founding Fathers and Mothers intended. It may have faults but it is in essence aspirational, transformational and provides a broad framework for bringing about socio-economic equality. But, any Constitution can only be as effective as the men and women who are charged with implementing the country’s rules as well as creating the culture of accountability the Constitution demands. Our Constitution is clear about the kind of state we are seeking to build, that is, “a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness”.

That we have strayed so far from this ideal and that inequality has risen so dramatically is not the fault of the Constitution. It has not failed us in providing the necessary space for transformation and the guidelines for a state that is accountable. Accountability means that government is ‘responsive to the interests of the whole society — what Aristotle called the common good – rather than to its own narrow self-interest. Accountability is more than simply procedural accountability but it is “substantive” too.  The argument against the Constitution has been made repeatedly, with passion and fervor. Somehow it has been scapegoated in the process when in fact what we ought to be doing is “joining the dots” between the corruption, mismanagement and poor governance/state capture and the failure of the state to deliver basic services. State capture has consequences, after all.

The Constitutional Court and our Constitution were about trying to accommodate a diversity of viewpoints and should be the starting point of our deliberations on difficult questions of race and transformation. It might not provide the answers but it ought to act as a guide. The injustices of the present cannot be laid at its door. It would therefore be a pity if, in the questioning of the negotiated settlement, the Constitution becomes collateral damage. In other more destructive ways we have seen the ANC question the legitimacy of the Constitution itself. As far back as 2012, enablers like Mzwanele ‘Jimmy’ Manyi made damaging comments, presumably with the fiat of the President and those close to him, that neither the Constitution nor the ConCourt will be treated “as sacred cows”. In 2011, ANC NEC member Ngoako Ramathlodi wrote an op-ed in The Times newspaper lamenting the fact that the Constitution had taken power away from the executive and the legislature. Essentially he was arguing that the judiciary had become too powerful. Of course by then Jacob Zuma’s venality was on display and increasingly matters involving the President were being taken to Court. No surprises then that the ANC and Zuma himself have launched attacks on the courts.

What is often forgotten is the road we have travelled and the respect we need to have for those early, difficult decisions that Mandela and the ANC had to make as South Africa stared down the edge of the abyss. South Africa in 2017 is a markedly different place to 1988. This difficult political and social moment requires measured interventions from leaders across society if we are to change the status quo, yet preserve that which the Constitution commits us to; dignity and equality for all. And so, in the midst of these arguments that are often confused dialogue and sometimes even violence, burning and the calls for ‘everything to fall’. Yet, if something falls, what rises in its place? And if things burn, who will rebuild? These are questions that have not yet been fully answered.

Despite the crisis therefore, the question is: How do we transform our society in meaningful ways? And go from a society “becoming” to one which is comfortable in its own skin? It’s going to be a long road ahead.  Transformation is an over-used and tired word in South Africa. It is often used as a proxy to advance narrow political interests. Transformation is often difficult because we are weighed down by the anger of both the past and the present, though in different ways. Our dialogue is brittle and blame is apportioned readily and angrily. We seem not to listen; we simply turn up the volume and out-shout the other. It is difficult to have a debate on solutions for the future in this context.

So if the ANC cannot fix it, then citizens must, WE must – divided as we are. It will take a mammoth collective effort from business, civil society and communities to rise up and speak out against the inaction fuelled by those who would consign our country to the dustbin of corrupt politics. It is not too late to do so.

Already, brave men and women are speaking up. Who can forget Sipho Pityana’s eloquent address at the funeral of Makhenkesi Stofile or the Omar family’s refusal to be associated with the pro-Zuma march? Or the stalwarts of the ANC speaking out at Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral? Full of courage – these messages need to be endorsed by business and communities and needs to be heard by our compromised Parliament.

We are in many ways finding our collective voice again. We also need to remember the lessons we’ve learnt: There are probably two important ones.

Lesson One of the early years would have been to try to fix the economy in some way and create sufficient trust between the economic players based on an understanding that a fair wage, creating a proper skills base, artisanships and entrepreneurship should be supported. Importantly, too, that some form of shared sacrifice would be necessary to deal with the ravages of the past.

And then Lesson Two might be that our trust deficit was papered over by the “rainbow discourse” of 1994 and our TRC never allowed us to fully deal with the past. “The past” lies between us in every debate about race and class, in every disagreement about structural inequality and an economy built on cheap labour. Too many victims’ questions remain unanswered while the perpetrators walk among us. The current lack of accountability seems built on the lack of accountability as regards the past.

And so transition is indeed a process yet, there is something at the heart of our society, a resilience that has been growing in the past months, be it as a response to our current condition or Zuma’s blatant corruption. There are what I call green shoots’ and we should be working hard to support initiatives aimed at greater government accountability – not only for Jacob Zuma to fall.

To this end, there are also some key ingredients – as we think, yes, we should- of a post-Zuma world. Where should our focus lie in building this democracy?

There are six areas that seem appropriate right now; education, education, education: Clearly, post-apartheid South Africa’s greatest failure has been education despite the fact that we have spent more on education as a percentage of GDP than any other area. Too many curriculum changes, the loss of experienced teachers and an insufficient embedding of the culture of learning, some errant teachers and weak administration, have hampered our ability to educate the next generation for a different kind of economic reality. Too many South African children simply drop out of school before reaching matric and the annual “puff” surrounding the matric pass rate is just that – puff when a small percentage of those who passed are able to reach university. In a post-1994 country based on a flawed notion of empowerment, education has often taken the back seat in a national discourse that prizes crass wealth accumulation above the emancipatory power of a decent education. This will continue to cost us dearly and there are no quick fixes. We will also need further investment and serious commitment to proper intellectual pursuit. For too long we have prized the material above having a proper education and the ability to think critically. This is the cornerstone of any society seeking to build a culture of democracy. Our post-1994 world has been littered with politicians driving German SUVs and a form of empowerment that often has not preferred skill or education but instead political proximity. Our President mocks “clever blacks” and seems comfortable with his ignorance about basic economics. This is about more than a university degree but also means thinking, persuading and convincing one another from the perspective of knowledge. That also ensures that tolerance becomes a hallmark of society. And education lifts people out of poverty and provides a “way out” of desperate situations.

Constitutional education: what is the Constitution? What is its purpose? How does it provide the checks and balances on power and give rise to a culture of accountability? How did we get here? And whose rights are protected? In Chapter 2 of the Constitution it says “socio-economic rights are justiciable”. What does that mean and what were the cases brought before the court which protected the rights of the most vulnerable in our society?

The culture of accountability – that there are consequences for actions by those who are elected. That deference is not part of that culture. Respect, yes. Deference to power, no. We have seen too much of that in post-1994 South Africa. Ministers arriving late, disrespecting citizens, explanations that are wishy-washy. President Zuma himself laughing off criticism. The Constitution demands something different, but so should we. It also, in a more complex way, demands honesty from all of us about our past, about generational privilege and about the way in which that still replicates itself. And how we fail to listen to each other’s stories.

We need to be more astute about connecting the dots between the information we receive via a free and independent media. How does corruption affect people’s lives? How does a tender awarded to a politician or his/her family mean that the poor do not receive the services they need? This information needs to be popularised and disseminated widely if it is to have maximum impact.

Leadership: it’s often unfashionable to call for leadership as it’s seen as citizens abdicating responsibilities to men and women who “know better” but what our current government has shown is that where there is a lack of leadership or there is destructive leadership, it has deep consequences for the future. What are our common, values and ideals and how do we protect and defend those? Former President Nelson Mandela was called to testify in court on whether he had “applied his mind” when setting up a commission of inquiry into SA Rugby. Many were outraged that Mandela, so revered was called to testify, yet he did so without complaint. That Mandela was prepared to place himself in such a position of scrutiny was a singular act of leadership. It not only showed his commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution, but was also a visible reminder that no one, not even the President, is above the law. Zuma has shown no such appetite for accountability. That was Mandela, the Constitutionalist and also Mandela the leader. Who can forget his leadership at the moment of Chris Hani’s death? At present there is a lack of leadership and a recklessness that has dangerous consequences for our society as whole – things burn and “fall” often with little wisdom as to what happens next. It is all of our duty to speak “truth to power” wherever we are.

Active and engaged citizenship: Our country is sorely in need of those who question and who do the work of democracy wherever they find themselves. That quiet work goes on every day in our country despite the excesses of government and the corruption. It responds to circumstances and necessity often in the most creative of ways. But it also requires a thoughtfulness on each of our part – how we respond and when we do, to what we see around us?

The question we have to ask is, “what is the work for us to do?” That is both an individual and collective question for each one of us as we try to create a world that is more just and more equal. DM

This is an edited extract of the annual Frederik van Zyl Slabbert Honorary lecture, delivered this year at the University of Stellenbosch by Judith February. The full text can be found here


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