Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 16 November 2020

United we stand: We must come together in the name of social justice and equality if we hope to reclaim South Africa

We must not limit ourselves to the public square or to an election, but rather, we must rebuild our collective and inherent ability to build structures and local connection points.

South Africans are burdened by our political elite. Not simply by their inability to deliver basic services, and uphold the Constitution or the foundational values of our republic, but also burdened by the theatrics and ill-fitting solutions that they often concoct to confront issues. 

South Africa is unable to confront its structural issues because our political regime secures power and position over accountability and responsibility.

We see this lack of accountability play out in the Zondo commission, in the delivery of basic services by municipal authorities across the country, and in the avoidance of confronting the structural realities of our country. 

South Africa is well aware of its challenges and the need to urgently address structural realities that perpetuate exclusion across multiple areas, from race, education, economic participation and empowerment, to access to healthcare and other basic services.

In the void of responsibility and accountability, we are served half-truths, half-baked solutions, and rhetoric filled with dogma and posturing performance. 

South Africa is not alone in this upended world of public service, but rather the world has been confronted with performance artists masquerading as servants of the people. 

The democratic systems in South Africa, and elsewhere, continue to perpetuate an exclusionary and divisive system that leans in to dogma, ambivalence and the erosion of people’s voices. The health of our democracies is often only judged by the efficacy of our electioneering systems, the ability of people to cast their vote and the tabulation required to determine the outcome of those elections.

The risk in framing our democracy solely by elections (and the outcomes of those elections) is that our focus on the structural rebuilding and reimagining that is required is forgotten. 

The efforts to rebuild our democracy requires a confrontation of the issues that enable and allow rot to seep in. 

The work requires awareness to challenge systems, rules, regulations and legislation that provide a wide discretion to elected representatives and executive functionaries. 

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Mhlanganyelwa Zuma is often viewed or positioned by some as a unique apparition – an anomaly of a system that, other than Zuma, was decent, lawful and fair. 

However, the State Capture project and sedition against South Africans that was undertaken during the lost decade of Zuma was in large part enabled by the very machinery of our democracy that is often ignored.

The recent focus on by-elections in South Africa this past week has been positioned as an extraordinary event akin to the entertainment machinery that has surrounded American politics. The impact of Covid-19 necessitated the postponement of elections across the country, which culminated in a series of by-elections all taking place on one day.

However, participation in our election processes has continued to wane since 1994, where a silent majority has now decided for a range of reasons not to actively participate in the process that elects representatives across the spectrum. 

The lack of participation and engagement in our democratic process is another exclusionary structural obstacle that must be confronted by all in society. 

The hard work of confronting this issue is often neglected by incumbent political parties because additional participation might dilute their influence and power, and create space for more representative and participatory elements.

The slow pace at which our National Prosecuting Authority is able to move against those implicated in wrongdoing and criminality is not only because the legal tools are slow-moving, but because the systems of our democracy allow for obfuscation, avoidance and mudslinging if all else fails. 

Accusations of captured prosecutorial agencies are palatable because the state machinery during the lost Zuma decade, and before, was used to further the agenda of self-interest over state. 

The Stalingrad approach perfected by Zuma, and in large part funded by the taxpayers of South Africa, continues to be a broad implementation plan for politicians across South Africa’s spectrum.

There is no doubt that Elias Sekgobelo “Ace” Magashule, the secretary-general of the ANC, will benefit from the mudslinging, dogmatic rhetoric, conspiracy theories and peddling of outrage that have supported and enabled politicians like Zuma to avoid accountability. 

South Africa’s law enforcement agencies and court systems have been accused before of their own capture and bias in instances of this nature.

During the lost decade, justices of the Constitutional Court were accused of being part of the United States’ clandestine security apparatus and on their payroll when very similar issues were encountered by the ruling elite. 

It will not be sufficient to just remove the implicated individuals from public office, but if we South Africans wish to protect our democracy, then we will need to create structural barriers that ensure we avoid perpetuating the same mistakes.

The unfolding saga in the United States continues to highlight the hold that Donald John Trump, the 45th president, has over the Republican Party, the executive branch and American society at large. 

Trump has demonstrated again the danger of only focusing on the removal of a figure from a position of power. The machinery of the American democracy, much like South Africa’s own, empowered and enabled a corrupt, malfeasant and criminal man to seize control of a democracy and redirect its efforts to serve his own aims. 

The tale of Trump – much like that of Zuma – is littered with an enabling party political structure and the ability to use the exercise of public power, government, influence and the public purse to serve his own interests and those of his family and friends who supported his ascent and reign.

The dangers of ignoring these warnings is that our democracies can be upended by people like Trump, Magashule or Zuma because we fail to look beyond the immediate crisis.

The role of by-elections and elections by and large play a crucial role in our democracy and the ability of our governments to serve the people. The cyclical nature of our politics is that a revolving-door structure is created for those who wish to retain power, especially where expediency and dogma are the commodities that secure positional power.

The machinery must be upended in order to avoid newer versions of Trump, Zuma or Magashule. 

We must safeguard our democracy and futures by intentionally building a system that rejects this kind of politics and persona, and thereafter to ensure that the structural levers of power are reformed in order to limit the possible damage people like these (and their enablers) can cause in our name.

The first step on this journey is for us to confront the party political machinery itself, and recognise how undemocratic those structures are with their cognitive dissonance, blind allegiance and recycling of feeding troughs that perpetuate discrimination, violence, criminality and personal greed. 

Citizens are poorly served by this party political machinery, and our avoidance or disinterest in demanding reform will continue to create an environment where there is no need for politicians to discard narrow interest, dogma or their own agendas.

The second step in this process will require a greater level of participation and engagement in our democratic institutions. We must not limit ourselves to the public square or to an election, but rather we must rebuild our collective and inherent ability to build structures and local connection points.

During the 1970s and 1980s, South Africans built powerful networks and structures that led in part to the collapse of the apartheid regime’s efforts to silence our voice. 

During 2015, South Africans again picked up their inherent power by building a network across South Africa in the form of #FeesMustFall, and we must again recommit our efforts to building stronger bonds and a more meaningful social compact to support the efforts towards social justice and equality that will confront the racial discrimination and structural violence that continues to thread its way through our society. 

We need social justice and equality to create enabling environments – not a system that continues to rob South Africans of their health, wellbeing, youth and futures. DM

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