Opinionista

The shallowness of the term ‘our people’

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David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

A common refrain in the ANC lexicon is ‘our people’. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a national lockdown was understandably implemented in the interest of ‘the lives and livelihoods of our people’. Recent — and not so recent — events, however, should give us pause when we hear the ruling party invoke ‘our people’ because of the shallowness it has come to invoke.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged in March 2020 that “millions of our people have understood the gravity” of Covid-19, one wonders whether there’s similar understanding among members of the ANC. Amid recent reports of alleged corruption and conflicts of interests related to tenders for personal protective equipment (PPE), it’s worth contemplating who’s included in the refrain “our people”. 

Perhaps when the ANC invokes “our people”, an emotional and symbolic term tied to the party’s struggle history, they’re referring to members of the party. One would be remiss for thinking otherwise, seeing as policy recommendations from the 53rd National Conference declared 2013 – 2023 “the decade of the cadre” in order to “safeguard the values of the ANC”, not the values of South Africans or South Africa. 

When the president or other members of the party speak of “our people”, they don’t appear to always mean South Africans — they appear actually to mean themselves and those connected to them. Plenty of evidence during — and before, for that matter — the “decade of the cadre”, ranging from Nkandla to dozens of reports related to the project of State Capture over the past few years suggests as much. How else does one explain stealing limited resources meant to go out to “our people”?

Over the years, the phrase “our people” has often been invoked during formal speeches to drum up the kind of support necessary for political campaigns and projects. During his first State of the Nation Address in February 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa needed to charm South Africans, members of the media and the international community into believing the ANC could still lead the country. 

“There is a greater sense of optimism among our people”, Ramaphosa said, because “our people are hopeful about the future”. It worked, and stakeholders expressed confidence in the potential of his leadership.

In his 2019 State of the Nation Address, delivered after the national elections, Ramaphosa again made many references to “our people” when reviewing the year that passed and looking to the year ahead. “Many of us who are representatives elected here,” he explained, “spent the better part of the past few months going through the length and breadth of our country, listening to our people”. 

Looking ahead to the implementation of the National Health Insurance programme, Ramaphosa declared that “we will attend to the health of our people” by attending “to the capacity of our hospitals and clinics”. Although no one could know that a pandemic would interrupt the entire world some 12 months later, recent allegations of corruption in addition to the state of some hospitals ill-equipped to handle the pandemic, like those in Port Elizabeth, call into question what capacity Ramaphosa was referring to and which of “our people” were spoken to by members of the government. 

Despite its common usage and acceptance, this phrase has drawn criticism before. In 2019, Mosiuoa Lekota questioned the meaning of “our people” in Parliament on the topic of land reform. Lekota was mocked for trying to make a clumsy point about race and collective identity in South Africa, given its brutal history of land dispossession. But he could’ve just as easily been referring to an ANC elite and the potential for the important project of land reform to become one that only benefits those in power or connected to it. 

When members of the ANC reference “our people”, it’s understandable to assume they’re actually referring to South Africans. The term is inherently ambiguous which creates the illusion of inclusion. There are broad swaths of vulnerable and destitute people throughout every town, and province of South Africa that benefit from policies and programmes meant to improve the livelihoods of “our people”, like social grants. 

Though, repeated corruption in the form of misplaced or missing funds and other irregular expenditures, along with inconsistent tender processes, suggest the ANC may, in fact, be unable to meet the needs of “our people”. Could it be because the ruling party isn’t actually referring to the tens of millions of South Africans who live lives characterised by vulnerability and impoverishment? 

To be fair, corruption is endemic in South African society and a central theme of its history. It’s not exclusive to the ANC and anyone claiming otherwise is willfully obfuscating this reality. The history of the country is one long tale of corruption – on a massive, state-sanctioned scale – that masqueraded as law. 

What makes the corruption of the present troubling, however, is that the ANC was and still is, in some respects, the apex of a revolution meant to minimise corruption and open society up to a democratic future. It claims to speak for “our people” and states it knows explicitly what “our people” need. 

While the ANC has indeed made positive contributions to South Africa since 1994, this history is being buried beneath its own shock, surprise and commissions of inquiry related to corruption. 

Recent reports of alleged corruption speak to a broader reality of life in South Africa, one in which the limited resources and capacities of institutions to serve the needs of “our people” are too often manipulated to serve the needs of a narrow elite. The shallowness of “our people” is that it’s just as exclusive as it is inclusive, and whether one is included or not seems to depend more on proximity to power than need. DM

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