Defend Truth


We should take off our Western-tinted glasses and look to African villages for a way forward

Gavin Hartford has decades of organisational experience in the labour movement and was active in the ANC at branch level and as an Eastern Cape Regional Executive Committee member.

It feels oddly surreal, bordering on the insane, to be in the Coté d’Ivoire city of Abidjan, four months into our African overland journey, and to read the stories of the antics and emptiness of a State of the Nation speech back home. It’s weird. Other worldly. A sort-of tragedy and a farce all in one act.

South Africans are locked into a social and economic death spiral. A death spiral occasioned not just from a history of lacklustre leadership, or outright pillaging and state capture, or racial profiling on a landscape of inequality and unemployment. Or any of the countless other phrases that we use to describe our illness. It’s way worse than that. 

South Africans have not yet come to terms with the deeper illness that binds them and blinds them. They have not yet understood what it means to be an African, or more specifically to be a newly born African nation that is the bastard child of the continent. 

South Africans suffer from the toxic combination of an inflated ego that hides a deep identity crisis within. We look to the northern hemisphere to answer our problems in the African deep south. We distrust the continental experience beyond seeing it as a potential market to exploit and accumulate from. We have no idea of what it means to build a nation beyond our own winning a beauty contest, or a rugby World Cup. We truly are the lost and arrogant children of Africa. Worse still is that we don’t even know this about ourselves. We are egotistical and violent people. To others and to our own. 

I can hear the pushback coming. The talk of being the friendly ones. The caring ones. The proud ones. The ones who overcome all obstacles. The negotiation capital of the world. The rainbow nation. The peace-loving ones. I can hear all that. Yet, yet it’s thin. And hollow. It borders on a lie. Its measure of success is ourselves, our own rhetoric, our own image in the mirror. And only that. It’s a kind of self-congratulatory praise-singing. And it’s nowhere near the truth. At least not when viewed from the sobering distance of being immersed for months in the countless African villages and towns, and cities of West Africa. 

It seems to me that our truth is what we watch, hear and read about from the commentariat. It’s the tiny truth of the insiders’ club. That’s our small world focus. It’s the obsessive and yet deeply boring, and predictable singular focus on big labour and big capital and big ANC in government. Of European lookalike social compacts for the rich in the name of the poor. Of progress and development measured solely through the tinted glasses of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and rating agencies. Of a western democracy with a colourful Constitution, and national flag to match, which is yet to be embedded in the ethos of the masses of ordinary outsider South Africans. Of our slavish love for mining, financial services, automotive and textile manufacturing that need tax breaks, and protection and countless Industrial Policy Action Plans (IPAP), for everything else. Of apartheid spacial city planning to protect the values of the properties of the rich and to keep us looking “modern”, and “western” with that sexy, clean, European-like look and feel. All for the insiders. For those few extremely wealthy souls that support the bulk of the tax base and who eat, and party under candles, even when we are not going through load shedding. 

It’s a hoax and it’s paper-thin. And it’s not sustainable. It’s the age-old trickle-down economics from deals between the big three social interests. It’s a trickle that will not reach the restless mass of outsiders. Not in my lifetime. It’s not even remotely viable. It’s just a matter of time. It will implode. Bit by bit. It has already started with the implosion of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the downsizing of businesses. 

Every macroeconomic indicator is heading south. Debt rising beyond revenue collection. Jobless rising. Currency weakening more and more. The capital markets flatline at best. Construction and freight industries decline. Properties lose value and will be worth virtually nothing. We are only at the beginning of the death spiral. There is a long road down. A long, long road. 

As we go down, we should take off our Western-tinted glasses. We should look at the bare face of our neighbours and beyond them across the African continent. Look deep at them. See the African villages, the towns and the cities. And in each, you will see a rickety stall, or collection of stalls, or a sprawling market. On every street and in every country. See the way the road itself has become a market, even before it is built into an asphalt road. Already the market is there. There in the dust. And in every market, there are sellers of onions, tomatoes, avos and pineapples. Countless sellers of all that grows. And they are there every day. Because they have customers to service. Alongside them are the yam and peanut sellers, bread makers, and chicken grillers. And the textile weavers. And the tailors. And the motorcycle mechanics and bicycle repair shops. 

Look deeper. This is the guts of the home market. It’s the African home market. It’s alive, it’s vibrant, it’s busy, disorderly and dirty. It’s an African home market. There are customers and sellers. Everywhere. No one has a license to be here. The license they have is what everyone has. It’s not given by a government official. It’s ordained at birth. It’s the license embedded in the DNA of every person. The license to educate, create, grow, sell and make. Everyone honours it. Everyone does it. 

Look deeper. Behind the goods and the seller. There is an African. Thousands and millions of Africans. Educated people. Proud people. People who know that their future and the future of their children depend on them. Not on government. Or even big business. Or big labour. But on them making, creating, trading and surviving. They are the rock of the home market of Africa. Don’t laugh. Don’t smirk. Learn from them. They are the bearers of all the lessons for our future in the south too. 

Look into the village. Look deep into the village. See households and homes. The ownership of the land and the village. The patterns from dawn to dusk. The simplicity of everyday life. The low carbon footprint. The children dressed for school and studying hard. The bells and the call to prayer. The sweeping mother. The pounding sister. The men and women who till their small pieces of land. The water and wood carried in to wash, and cook. Just enough. No more than the day’s needs. Tomorrow is another day. 

The land is owned or leased by the people. There is low unemployment and everyone has some land, or home assets from which they can produce for themselves, or their home market. On this foundation, the village is an economic unit with buyers and sellers. It is the expression of the collective economic enterprise and will of the people. Every day, it rises to the same tasks to be performed. The same rituals to be fulfilled. And behind it all, stands an unwritten commitment, a covenant even, to educate and work, and to work to educate for each other. Over and over. It’s embedded in the value system of the Africans themselves. Makes even the poorest of the poor stand proud. Hold their heads up. It’s the glue that cements the nation together. The street trader survives on street trading. The welder on welding. The tailor on sewing. The cook on cooking. And so it goes on. Each for the other. All for one. One for all. No getting ahead of the other. No falling behind the other. All rising. Slowly and painfully. But rising nonetheless. Against all odds. 

I long for a bit of this Africa at home. I long for a tiny taste of the lessons from the continent in the veins of our people back home. Where our leaders start with a conversation about themselves. About who they are and what it means to be a South African. Perhaps that conversation can ask: Who are we? Not as labour, or capital, or government agent. But as a people. What values define us? Not the tired phrases of rainbows and resilience. But what ethos and way of being binds us? Are we truly a people of ubuntu, as Nelson Mandela once hoped for? And if so, what does that really mean? 

You see if we are to truly build a South African nation, we all have to give up a lot and be prepared to learn a lot from each other as a people. We need a new conversation about nation-building and development. A conversation that is free of our caps, our agencies and our selfish interests. A conversation that starts with what we are prepared to give up, not what we want. Like landowners giving up their unfettered right to freehold ownership of land and the landless giving up the threat of occupations because they see the land being restored to the people. Like government giving up the right to regulate and police to become a facilitator of a package of new tax incentives, and accelerators to fashion changed behaviour for the nation. Like labour giving up the rights to regulate standards across even those businesses that are struggling and closing. Like capital giving up their right to make unfettered profits at any costs, and committing to invest and share in the wealth they create with others. 

Bottom line is that we need to start the stakeholder conversation by putting on the table all that we own, or control and the rights and interests we hold, and to say: All of this is up for reshaping and sharing in ways that grow the nation, and the national identity as the apex and sole right and interest. The test is not the stakeholder interest or rights, but the test is how any proposal enhances the building blocks to create the South African nation, to cement its values and ethos, to grow the cake of opportunity for all. 

And we need more than a stakeholder process. Much much more. We need every community and institution to mobilise South Africans to come together across the divide of the factory shop floor and the boardroom table, or the squatter camp and the polished walled home, the street trader and the retail giant, the skilled workers with the artisan, engineer and designer. 

We need to pull our people together across the countless divides in every household, school and place of work, or worship, or village, or town. We need imbizos everywhere that initiate and embrace a new dialogue of who we are and what we can do for each other, and how we can protect and grow one another and the nation at large. A dialogue that breaks the divides and cements the daily work, and social lives of our people together. That opens up land, ownership, markets, skills and education for all. That places care and help for each other and nation-building at the very centre of all economic, social, design and layout plans, and activities. Everyone must be helped and a culture of hard work for the family, and the nation must be instilled. 

It’s a long road down. There will be plenty of doomsayers. There will be plenty of negativism and armchair critics. And there will be active opposition. To succeed, we need leadership. Real steadfast and visionary leadership that is frank, honest and humble and yet able to rise to the calling of the nation above any stakeholder or factional interest. A leadership that facilitates, guides and listens. And that is bold in upholding the national test as the apex test and implementing the will of the nation, and the very big changes we need to save ourselves from ourselves. 

We need that kind of resolved and evolved leadership. A leadership that knows that Africa is our home. Our heritage and our future. And that builds, brick by brick, a new national identity for our people to become an authentically African nation of the south. Truly African at its core. Saturated with the ethos of ubuntu in everyday life. DM


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