The constant refrain in South Africa’s “new dawn” appears to be rooted in the word “who”. Who will lead? Who will convene and direct this new dawn? Who will forge a new social compact in order to confront the multiple challenges facing South Africans? Who will provide the answers to eliminating poverty and reducing inequality? Who will begin to re-imagine our spatial realities? Who will resolve the land issue? The unfortunate truth is that South Africa is, as it has found itself before, at a juncture of uncertainty.
In February 2018, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in as president. In his maiden State of the Nation Address he relied on the words of Hugh Masekela’s song Thuma Mina to close his speech:
I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around
When they triumph over poverty
I wanna be there when the people win the battle against Aids
I wanna lend a hand
I wanna be there for the alcoholic
I wanna be there for the drug addict
I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse
I wanna lend a hand
The words of Masekela should remind South Africans that the question of the who is quite simple. South Africans themselves must begin to confront and wrestle with their collective issues. The invitation made by President Ramaphosa does seem to ring hollow in the wake of the bruising and sobering unravelling of the shadow state.
Since 16 February, South Africans have had to contend with a technical recession, continued polarisation of politics, angry rhetoric, the refusal by some within the governing party to be held accountable, the great heist of VBS Mutual Bank that has ripped lives and futures apart, and continued uncertainty.
Sixteen years after Hugh Masekela released Thuma Mina, South Africans still do not know who will lead the efforts in triumphing over poverty or who will stand with those in need.
In South Africa’s new dawn, progress has been made on a number of fronts by beginning the clean-up of state-owned entities, the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Revenue Service and an attempt to hold a number of mayors accountable, for instance in the VBS Mutual Bank debacle.
However, we have lost focus on carving out an alternative vision of South Africa that can respond meaningfully to the Thuma Mina call. Many South Africans have responded to this call, and have been spurred on to act, but this is not enough. South Africa requires a systematic and sustained approach to confront its societal challenges, the lost decade, the remnants of State Capture, looting and corruption.
We have spent a large part of our collective history looking towards something better. In this searching, South Africans have galvanised their efforts and focused on key stalwarts and leaders. It is for this reason that people like Charlotte Maxeke, Walter Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, Adelaide Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Pixley ka Seme, Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Andrew Mlangeni stand out in our collective memories.
South Africans gathered around these women and men, and many others, in the fight against apartheid, oppression, injustice and discrimination. We have gathered at other moments in our history when we had to confront HIV/Aids denialism or the meaningful articulation of our socio-economic rights.
South Africans, from all walks of life, have articulated a particular vision of South Africa — a vision that we must remember is not absolute, but rather subjective and informed by myriad variables.
South Africans once embraced the Thuma Mina ethos, but since the advent of democracy and in particular over this lost decade, we have suffered through a series of failures — a failure to believe, a failure to deliver, a failure to achieve, a failure to imagine, and worst a failure to serve. The lost decade has entrenched that loss of confidence. Add to that ineptitude, ill-equipped civil servants, misplaced elected office-bearers, mounting public debt, and worsening social and economic indicators.
However, South Africans must be reminded of their own voice and power regardless of the looming election campaigns, the African National Congress’s 8 January statement and soon thereafter President Ramaphosa’s second State of the Nation Address.
South Africans appear to have been waiting — in some perverse sense of purgatory, where political marginalisation, social injustice, exclusion and abuse have continued to deprive South Africans of a better future. The unravelling of the State Capture project (and the lost decade) has in some respects been a boon to this collective amnesia — it has acted in some ways as a force disruptive to complacency and an inability to step up.
Marginalisation is rooted in the simple fact that far too many South Africans have limited opportunities — their capabilities are being ignored in part by the system and the structural realities of our economy. However, the growing social critique continues to play an important role in confronting our challenges, and begins to shape not only our rhetoric, but the approach that we should all be striving for — to expand opportunities, unseat marginalisation and oppression, and to ensure more people are contributing to and driving change.
The sense of purgatory is pervasive and debilitating, but many South Africans have been wrestling with these issues. We need only look at the efforts around access to housing, the battle for social housing, access to good health facilities and movements such as those led by communities and people across the country. This is not simply a quiet struggle against what is wrong in society but is a constant struggle against everyday injustices, which blends with political struggle.
In fact, every keystroke, every verse of poetry and song, every image on social media, every protest, every petition, every voice and every spoken word contributes to this political struggle. Sixteen years ago, Hugh Masekela reminded us all that this political struggle is personal and essential and so we have no time to continue wondering about the “who”.
The answer is simple — it is each of us — we must begin to use our voices and our bodies to stand with and for those trapped in poverty, those struggling in our rural communities and urban centres, and those in need.
Simply put – Thuma Mina. DM