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South Africa needs renewed citizen activism and political imagination to stop the democratic degradation

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Judith February is the executive officer of Freedom Under Law and editor of Judith’s Prudence, the Daily Maverick legal newsletter.

Could 2021 have been South Africa’s very own annus horribilis? Like 2020, it should have come with a warning label of drought and hardship, of Covid-19 and new variants, of unemployment and political paralysis. It’s past the time for us to get to work.

In a country with a fraught past, a history of self-inflicted wounds and one in which the everyday violence of poverty and inequality bite hard, naming things can be complex.

The recent unemployment statistics released by Statistics South Africa would have any government awake at night. It is a crisis of extreme proportions.

The official unemployment rate now sits at 34.9%, while under the expanded definition of unemployment, unemployment rose from 44.2% to 46.6%.  

Yet, in the noise and global chaos surrounding the discovery of the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, it was almost a non-news story. Except of course for those who live on the margins of this society.

Recently, the television news provided regular updates of the 54-hour water cuts in Johannesburg. In one of the clips a street vendor explained how the advanced notice had helped him stock up on water but he was unsure how he would cope for more than a day. His face was etched with the fatigue.

How many more ways are there to visit hardship upon those already battling on the margins of this unequal society, one wondered. In the Eastern Cape, drought continues unabated with little leadership to be found in the crisis. Aside from these challenges, rail tracks lie overgrown and the air of neglect is omnipresent on our highways and byways and in towns and cities alike. State Capture has a price, after all.

All around us things seem broken with very little leadership to be found anywhere.

Is this the country we have made?

The Covid-19 Omicron variant will bring even more economic devastation, the consequences of which will be felt into 2022 and beyond.  

Covid-19 is a challenge but then so is basic governance. We have watched political parties slug it out in their attempts at forming coalitions in the many hung municipalities across the country.

Mostly coalition talks were disconnected from the street vendor and those like him who battle it out at the margins of this society. Our politics is venal to its core. No calm and measured German “traffic light” coalitions for South Africa, unfortunately.

Disturbing reports have also been circulating about possible sabotage at Eskom for a while now. Eskom CEO André de Ruyter called what happened at Lethabo power station in the Free State recently, “deliberate acts of sabotage”.

Of course the reasons for Eskom’s multiple failures are complex and have their roots in State Capture. There are, however, those within the system who are threatened by De Ruyter’s appointment and the attempts to uncover corruption. This is directly linked to President Cyril Ramaphosa and the battle for political power ahead of the 2022 ANC elective conference. The question, as is often the case in South Africa, is now that we know there is sabotage, what will be done about it? The answer, as is so often the case too, is not much.

It bears repeating that we lived through an insurrection in July. Well, that’s what Ramaphosa called it. If that was an incorrect naming of what happened, then he ought to retract that statement, made on live television. Words matter and the words of a president matter even more.

He also said: “We know who they are.”

So, if we know who they are, why have all our resources not been trained on finding these individuals and arresting them?

While we all understand the difficulties National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi faces, the budget cuts, the lack of skill within the NPA and that – like Eskom – parts of it remain captured by dark forces, Batohi has been a disappointment. The resignation of NPA Investigating Directorate head Hermione Cronje would have been music to the ears of the corrupt.

For as long as the NPA is unable to prosecute effectively and for as long as the Hawks remain devoid of enthusiasm to investigate matters and as long as we retain an incapable, blustering minister of police, those who sabotage Eskom or plan insurrections will continue brazenly.  

This is all indicative of the stuttering project to rebuild our institutions and entrench the rule of law. It is also indicative of the crisis of public values and of democracy itself.

To be sure, democratic degradation does not happen overnight; it takes time and needs enablers of every kind. In South Africa there is no shortage of enablers seeking to stymie our progress, constantly muddying the waters with a mixture of intellectual dishonesty, decision-making paralysis and sheer criminality.

But look ahead we must, and equally we need to rethink the very values which we committed to when the final Constitution was signed into law 25 years ago.

Retired Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron recently received the Order of the Baobab in gold.

He is a deserving recipient, a man who served our country with distinction on the Bench. His is the finest of legal minds.

In a television interview on the interview process for the new chief justice, Cameron raised concerns about the Judicial Service Commission, its conduct and leadership, and berated Ramaphosa for not dealing swiftly with the vacancy for a chief justice.

Cameron rightly cautioned against being too tactful when it comes to speaking about what ails our country. We need to speak the truth boldly and not parse our words, he said.

2022 will provide no respite even as most South Africans find themselves exhausted by the end of 2021.

Intrinsically linked to our inability to deal with the country’s myriad challenges is the dysfunctional and corrupt internal politics of the ANC. No longer a party that serves the people, it has in many ways become a cover for criminality. In the midst of all of this sits the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, flailing as he tries to reconcile the more progressive part of his party, committed to constitutionalism and the rule of law (albeit a sliver of the party), with the corrupt “Radical Economic Transformation (RET)” brigade. The latter’s task is to create sufficient disarray and undermine both the Ramaphosa presidency and the economy.

From the insurrection in July, to the shambles which is our security services, to an increasing RET anti-vaxx position, to a commitment to coal, Ramaphosa’s grip on power appears reluctant and tenuous.  

He simply does not know who to trust within his Cabinet and outside it. His famed “long game” has become tired. The ANC itself now represents an existential crisis for the country. Whether the ANC splits or not (it should), its inexorable decline will lead to a loss of power.

Quite what South Africa looks like thereafter will be of our own doing; how we reshape and render this democracy in the face of unspeakable challenges will be a test of our durability and our commitment to the fundamentals of democracy.

The time has come for us to heed Justice Cameron’s wise words and to reclaim our public spaces; to speak out against injustice, poor governance and the lack of truth and values in public life. Our country is at a dangerous inflection point and to fix it we will need renewed citizen activism and political imagination. We all shoulder the blame for believing perhaps too much in the politicians and not doing the civic work of democracy with enough rigour wherever we find ourselves.

It’s our democracy if we can keep it, to mangle Benjamin Franklin’s words. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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