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It is abundantly clear that South Africa needs a new so...

Defend Truth


It is abundantly clear that South Africa needs a new social compact, and urgently


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law. She writes in her personal capacity.

Our country has always been broken. The year 1994 provided us with a brief respite and we wrought what was called a ‘miracle’. Deep down we all knew that while the foundation was laid, there was plenty of work to be done. Now, we need to remind ourselves that we have failed dismally to bring about a just society in which every individual can fully enjoy the rights of citizenship.


between you and me
how desperately
how it aches
how desperately it aches between you and me

so much hurt for truth
so much destruction
so little left for survival

where do we go from here

your voice slung
in anger
over the solid cold length of our past

how long does it take
for a voice
to reach another

in this country held bleeding between us *

This past week has been deeply painful. Where do we go from here? 

We all feel the collective sorrow of a country torn apart. But the sorrow is also deeply personal for all of us who live in this beleaguered, beautiful place. Much has been written about the violence unleashed last week. Whispers of a coup d’etat and an insurrection were heard as early as Monday. How do we name these events that we lived through last week? 

Much more will still be written about the need to be united in our diversity and the need to work together; we will invoke our beloved Madiba and remember his and others’ sacrifices and we will talk of how collectively we are better than those who seek to divide us. We will speak of rebuilding despite the uncertainty of the present moment. 

In the immediate aftermath of the violent attack on the state, its people and their livelihoods, there seemed to be space only for lament and very little for sense-making. But amid the debris we know certain things to be true. In drawing these threads together we can start to make sense of the past week. 

Our country has always been broken. The year 1994 provided us with a brief respite and we wrought what was called a “miracle”. Deep down we all knew that while the foundation was laid, there was plenty of work to be done to ensure not only civil and political freedom, but also that the aspiration of our Constitution in the form of socioeconomic rights for all people was met. Now we need to remind ourselves that we have failed dismally to bring about a just society in which every individual can fully enjoy the rights of citizenship.  

South Africa has also always been adept at the language of violence. So, analyst after analyst told us that last week was entirely expected. In a country with a 32% unemployment rate, a youth unemployment rate of 70% and shamefully deep levels of inequality, who would be surprised, they said.

Add to that the near wasted decade of State Capture, the corruption within the governing ANC, corrupt, inept local government and hollowed institutions and it is a toxic mix. Anyone who has been following South African politics and society even cursorily would understand the challenges before us. Yet, with all the certitude of analysis, no one could quite predict the precise contours of the past week and the collective trauma we all experienced as we watched infrastructure being sabotaged, people looting malls in full view of television cameras and hundreds dying. 


we carry death
in a thousand cleaving spectres
we carry death

it latches its mouth to our heart
it sucks groaningly
how averse lures the light on our skin
it knows
our people carry death
it resembles ourselves
our stomachs wash black with it
a pouch of ink
we carry death into the houses
and a language without mercy
suddenly everything smells of violence

death snaps its relentless valves in our language
yes, indefatigable meticulous death *

What we witnessed was a fire sparked by former president Jacob Zuma and his shameful coterie of the corrupt. They are a motley and dangerous crew. We now know that they would indeed raze this country to the ground to escape accountability. We have seen the alternative they offer: a state unbound by rules. They are within the state, within Zuma’s own family and within the ANC itself. It is a spine-chilling prospect that there are those within the police who would simply stand back and let it all burn. 

We also know that our police and intelligence agencies were hopelessly unprepared. President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted as much in his Friday night address. His words were sobering; the threat to our democratic state is a “clear and present one”.  

That there needs to be an urgent revamp of the intelligence agencies is obvious. It is worth noting that applications have been invited for the position of inspector-general of intelligence as required by Section 210(b) of the Constitution. This appointment is now more important than ever given the abject failure of intelligence over the past week. The same vigilance would need to be applied in the South African Police Service. 

Despite the disorder within the state, this past week South Africans of all walks of life came out in droves to assist with the cleaning up of destroyed malls and to protect property, neighbourhoods and livelihoods. These people represent the very best of who we are. There was no time to wait for a politician to come out and coordinate a rescue effort. As South Africans, we now fully understand that this weak and compromised state is truly incapable of rescuing us. As the old US civil rights refrain went, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

In protecting communities, we reclaimed some of the pride we lost in the embers of this terrible week for our country. Ramaphosa has urged us to clean our streets and build up what has been broken down. The president himself was seen on Sunday, Mandela Day, helping the clean-up operation. He is right that we should start taking responsibility for our own neighbourhoods. But this is far bigger than simply a clean-up. It is in fact about reimagining civic life. 

US activist and academic Harry Boyte has worked extensively on reimagining the civic space and understanding how societies can move towards a more citizen-centred politics. Essentially Boyte argues for a new kind of (citizen) politics that centres on “negotiating a common life”. The creation of so-called free spaces is essential to the notion of citizens organising themselves. Boyte, with his colleague Sara Evans, relies on the model at work in 1960s America. During the civil rights movement, civic spaces were reimagined in venues ranging from churches to beauty parlours. Boyte champions the notion of broad-based community organising in colleges and other spaces with citizens as “co-creators” with the state and not simply voting fodder.

At present, protest action in South Africa is mostly embarked upon by those who have been forgotten by those in power once an election has come and gone. Citizens need to develop a sense of agency that moves beyond the protest. This requires sustained and systematic forms of mobilisation, whether in small community groups or larger ones. Unfortunately, citizenship today is largely passive: citizens “receive” government services and are bestowed rights. 

Are South Africans mature enough to do what Boyte suggests and “work across differences to solve common problems, advance justice, and create community wealth, from schools, public spaces, libraries and local businesses to art, music and healthy lifestyles”? In the examples he cites, in educational spaces, teams of young people worked on “real-world issues” such as “campaigns against bullying, sexual harassment, racism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence to building playgrounds, championing healthy lifestyles, and making curriculum changes”.

In South Africa, Equal Education, for instance, has done similar work with learners, governing bodies, school management and parents, aimed at creating safer school environments, ensuring the state develops norms and standards around educational infrastructure, and demanding transport to and from school for children living far away from the nearest school. Such localised initiatives have been possible largely because of the mobilisation of students and parents. It is a model worth extending to other areas of socioeconomic development and where the state has abdicated its responsibilities.

In a South African context, we can see where such “creative citizenship” (co-creation with the state) could take us. It would go beyond passive citizenship and the mere demanding of rights, towards meaningful interaction between citizens and their public representatives. Our Constitution champions “public participation” but too often that participation is shallow and technocratic and does not facilitate an ongoing conversation between citizens and elected representatives. Is there any wonder that burning has become commonplace?

In the #FeesMustFall movement there were nascent signs of our ability to build the kinds of circles of learning and meaning within universities that are needed for us to talk about decolonisation and other areas of concern. But those circles need to become more inclusive to reap real benefits. The Right2Know campaign has also pursued successful campaigns over several years regarding the cost of mobile phone data. The campaign, #DataMustFall, has mobilised communities where the mobile phone has become a crucial way of communication, but also for the transferring of remittances and other daily tasks. The “right to communicate” has thus been reframed as a human right.

However, more needs to be done in terms of moving towards a broader, more liberating notion of citizenship as “work” and as co-creating with the state. For that to happen, civic education regarding the rights and responsibilities in the Constitution must take place in schools and other places of learning.

All sectors of society need to be part of reimagining civic life, including business, which is a key actor. As the World Economic Forum argues, companies need to see the benefits of “defending civic space”, which includes “the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest against failings and corruption”. In a 2017 World Economic Forum report, the “fraying rule of law and declining civic freedoms” was cited as a major global risk for companies. In South Africa, this will mean that business too recreates its role as “citizen” to operate ethically regarding, inter alia, workers’ rights, occupational safety, transparent tender processes, and executive pay.

This is a difficult time and will be one of continuing tension. We need to understand finally that politicians do not hold the answers and that our obsession with the internal politics of the ANC has distracted us from the true work of democracy. 

It is also abundantly clear that South Africa needs a new social compact, and urgently. 

If Ramaphosa was waiting for a “Break glass now!” moment, this is it. When he took office, Ramaphosa committed his government to re-establishing the social compact between government, business and labour. 

Pandora’s box has been opened and Ramaphosa should now simply expend the political capital he has. To do so he will need to harness the overwhelming majority of South Africans and social partners against the common “enemy” — those who seek to destroy the democratic state and endanger its citizens. 

On Friday Ramaphosa told us “we know who they are” when he spoke of those who attempted this insurrection. As citizens we expect him to be true to his word and we expect these perpetrators to face the “full might of the law”, to use that South African cliché. We expect that to happen whether they are ANC members or not. Now is not the time to flinch in the face of these anarchists. If arrests do not happen soon then the state will have shown itself to be weaker than what was on display last week. It will also seriously erode the president’s power. 

Ramaphosa has a moment now too to reshuffle his Cabinet: let us rid ourselves of the disloyal, the corrupt and the feeble. There is a long list, but can we afford a minister of police known only for bluster and sartorial inelegance and whose loyalty to Ramaphosa is questionable? What of Lindiwe Sisulu, who rushed to Nkandla in heels before Zuma’s arrest and defended the appearance of men in fatigues? And, what of Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who said that Zuma understood the Constitution well and would speak out against the violence if he had access to proper communications? 

Apart from dealing with the internal ANC politics and a Cabinet reshuffle, the president should be at the forefront of starting the grand project of social reconstruction. The paralysis that is the ANC’s internal politics is untenable and led to the anarchy we saw unleashed last week.\

South Africans have shown that they have little appetite for the destruction unleashed by insurrection. They have shown even less appetite to “die for Zuma”. What they did demonstrate was a will and a resilience to build a country and to protect their communities.

What we also saw was the very real desperation of people to gain access to food and any form of resource. Ramaphosa should use the levers he still has within business and civil society to shore up his support in multiple constituencies across the country. He needs to be seen on the streets of our country, coalescing communities, churches and he needs to really listen to what the people have to say. He also really needs to be answering questions from the media in real-time. 

Our country needs lasting change and lasting solutions which bring about urgent justice for those on the margins of society. Implementing a Basic Income Grant would be a useful starting point. Much research has been done on the viability of such a universal grant. The simple point is that we cannot afford not to do it. Alongside that must be a drive towards a mass employment scheme for the youth and a deeper commitment to quality education for all. We will need to dig deep and deploy all our intellectual capital to reach for solutions to the crisis we face right now. 

In the prologue to their book, Enemy of the People, authors Adriaan Basson and Pieter du Toit ask poignantly, “How did a man who swore on 9 May 2009 that he would commit himself ‘to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion’ come to embody everything that is wrong with South Africa?” They go on to say; ‘…Zuma and his circle of rogue protectors broke not only the country’s spirit and moral fibre but also our hearts’.”

As we watched people queue for food and petrol and trucks being escorted by the SANDF and hospitals burning, we fully understood that Zuma and his rogue supporters and all those who continue to enable his assault on our democracy, truly are enemies of the people. 

The blood and ash of the past week are on their hands. This extraordinary country of ours now demands of us all — yet again — to build something new out of the ashes of July. 

This will be our ultimate test. When we look back on this moment in our post-apartheid history, will we be able to say that we built something new, better and different? Or as Antjie Krog says more profoundly, 

a moment
a line which says: from this point onwards
   it is going to sound differently
because all our words lie next to one another on the table now
shivering in the colour of human
we know each other well
each other’s scalp and smell, each other’s blood
we know the deepest sound of each other’s kidneys in the night
we are slowly each other
and here it starts’* DM

*Extracts: Antjie Krog: Country of grief and grace: from Down to my last skin (2000)


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All Comments 6

  • Brilliant article with some indication and suggestion of ways forward. Really hope that those who need to hear this are reading it.

  • “Implementing a Basic Income Grant would be a useful starting point. Much research has been done on the viability of such a universal grant. The simple point is that we cannot afford not to do it.”
    And yet we quite literally cannot afford to implement it. The money has been stolen, debt and its repayment is huge, the public wage bill is unsustainable.
    I would support increased taxes only if the government (ANC) would create full transparency on every Rand it spends and I would want see some real accountability beyond one of the worst people in the history of SA going to jail for 4 months.

    It’s been said before, you have to first fix the gushing leak before you can rearrange the deck chairs on the ship SA. Otherwise we will all sink.
    Lets not even get started on funding the NHI, which is just as urgent and just unobtainable. And just keep on remembering that it’s the ANC who caused all this…

    • SA certainly CAN afford a Universal Basic Income, as is explained in detail by recent work of the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) – it is entirely a political choice facing our government.

      • I do not agree that we have the funding available. I am aware of the document you mentioned.
        1. we are already at very high tax rates at least for the middle class. Most tax issues we face are more about collection and fixing loopholes than anything else. I completely support any reforms to increase current tax collection.
        2. the study you mention also correctly mentions that current tax needs to be corruption free and efficiently utilized… absolutely. Thing is this needs to happen first, before other mechanisms make any sense.
        3. wealth tax could be used to initiate a fund, but could not sustain it, nevermind the possible economic damage to any form of investment this would have. I know its uncomfortable and sad, but none the less true.
        3. simply rasing more taxes at this point, a tiny and shrinking tax base that is already among the highest taxed in the world considering what services are supplied by the government for it, is madness.

        All these studies (a similar one from black sash is also available) all make assumptions on the state of our economy, the money available and the political issues such as corruption and cadre deployment, that simply are not true. And this was before CoVID.

        • Apologies, looks like the study linked by black sash is the same as the one you mentioned…makes sense now why it seemed familiar. I think we need a more neutral entity to update this study and maybe be a little realistic about solutions offered. I truly do support a Basic Income Grant, I just think its critical to ensure it’s sustainable. If it fails simply because we were not realistic with our self assessment of what is actually possible, we collapse what is left of the country and with it any future chance of a BIG.
          And the first step is to fix the leaks in the boat, aka corruption…and quickly!

  • Ronnie Kasrils this week in an interview with EWN, emphasised the need for a “New Deal” to build improved infrastructure (which would attract investors) and simultaneously create jobs which would not only restore a sense of self worth (which a BIG won’t do) to the chronically unemployed, but put bread on the table. Where is the money to come from in our over indebted state? Roosevelt had the answer and risked his political life to do it. The New Deal was funded by cutting 15% off every state employee’s wages.Has Ramaphosa got the balls? Or will civil servants and their unions again bring the country to its knees at the very suggestion. The bold, if unpopular decision by Roosevelt paved the way for economic growth that has lasted 80 years or more.

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