Opinionista Carolin Gomulia 20 February 2018

The time is now for real social transformation

There has been a glut of breaking news, analysis, social media posts and radio talk show deliberations on what felt like a South African political roller coaster ride last week. President Cyril Ramaphosa was given lots of advice, compliments and pleas as he assumed the presidency. Instead of addressing the new president, I want to call on civil society and fellow citizens to commit to real, lasting social transformation.

President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation speech left me, as many others, excited and hopeful. There was a sense of possibility in the air, the possibility for a better future. It was marvellous to enjoy these moments after such a long period of doom and gloom. It was a relief when President Ramaphosa addressed civil society as partners and turned the previously rather hostile attitude by government to one of partnership and collaboration. I can only imagine the masses of emails the presidency received from civil society organisations pledging partnership and offering their area of expertise and methodology in support of the president’s call.

South Africa’s civil society is a diverse and large sector with more than 85,000 registered NPOs. The common denominator is, largely, improving conditions in society. Yet, it seems that the impact towards transformative change in South Africa is low. It does not take much to understand that more than 350 years of oppression and deliberate dehumanisation have led South Africa to where it is, with a current state apparatus captured and eroded by capitalist and rapacious individuals. And of course, since last week, the hope to walk on a new path.

While renewal in political leadership after the Zuma years is important, the task ahead is not only their responsibility. As much as we all look up to the new president and the expected changes he is to make, I believe we need honest conversations among civil society about the massive resources (human, financial and social) that make up this sector, on the one hand, and the lack of transformative change on the other. The development industry is booming globally and in South Africa. TED talks, online seminars, new ICT solutions, fund-raising seminars, development consultants and a growing number of NPOs are part of the new normal.

If the time is now, I think the conversation about change needs to start with differentiating development and transformation. Development is the global paradigm for change. If we take the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the World Bank Development Indicators, the African Union’s Agenda or South Africa’s National Development plan, all speak to the paradigm of development. What the concept of development seems to imply is that there is a certain direction for change seemingly reinforcing strategies and programming that looks very similar across the world to achieve the desired results of growth and development.

Social transformation is less popular and a difficult term as it speaks to a change that is profound, complete and radical. It speaks to disrupting, interrupting and restarting. It challenges us to think upside down and inside out. It requires brutal honesty and clarity. South Africa is in desperate need of transformation to engineer against centuries of institutionalised oppression and dehumanisation.

In the South African context, this requires deliberate acts to counter the historical injustices that are still current, the captured and corrupt state institutions and actively participate in the building of a transformed society. Even though the president has pledged that under this leadership State Capture will be rooted out, we need to pressure and be vigilant. Social transformation is the prerogative of citizens and needs a servant and efficient state in support, one that was pledged by President Ramaphosa during SONA.

The state should merely play a role of service to the agenda of the citizen of this country. Transformation that is distinct from development is also vital to ensure that this project of transformation will not be captured by Western or capitalist ideas of development and the belief that resources and dressing up of a problem or putting a plaster on will bring the solution. Even though businesses or foreign governments might hold the resources and funding to enable a transformative agenda, it needs to be clear from the outset that they can participate, join and enable the process but never own or determine the outcomes.

What it demands is working towards a country and ultimately a continent that offers the possibilities of a dignified life for all. This means a country where no one is discriminated against due to race, colour, gender or belief and where each person has the freedom to access opportunities. It means not repeating the cycles of poverty but focusing on innovation and audaciously craft solutions. This will require going against the mainstream approaches of classical philanthropic or developmental institutions.

Shifting towards a transformative agenda, which puts decency and dignity at the centre, will enable human possibility or, put differently, ensure that every person can walk tall in their own stature. It will require a commitment to focusing on quality, sustainability, excellence and effectiveness. It will also necessitate being audacious and creating world-class, innovative interventions. Protecting turfs and single-minded thinking of perpetuation of the same cannot be allowed.

The vision that civil society needs to hold is to activate social transformation by designing audacious and top-rate solutions that understand the complexity and intersectional nature of the issues at hand. DM

Carolin Gomulia is the Head for Strategy & Fund-raising and for Communications and Advocacy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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