Now is not the time for South Africans to accept the status quo or to concede the public square to our public representatives, and those governing our towns, cities and country. The retreat from the public square was initially premised on the hope that the dawn of a constitutional democracy would account for all the hard sacrifices that ordinary womxn and men had to endure. The retreat has been exacerbated by the rising unemployment, deepening poverty and deafening inequality that continues to rob millions of South Africans of opportunity and promise.
The promise of our constitutional democracy has been derailed, and the lost decade has forced many more South Africans to retreat and abandon the public square. Social compacting and bridges of collaboration and partnership have instead flourished in order to confront what is wrong in our society.
Countless organisations from Gift of the Givers to community action networks have had to enter the fray, and in many respects meet the needs of people and communities. These organisations and groups confront issues of hunger, poverty, safety, and also the provision of basic services such as water. The only alternative option was to accept defeat — all while those entrusted to do better have continued to fail not only our needs but our aspirations.
We should be heartened by the tenacity through which South Africans have refused to simply give up and have continued to find ways to honour the sacrifice that so many made in order for a free South Africa to exist. The past few weeks of 2022, and indeed the past decade, have been a reminder to all South Africans that our body politic continues to struggle to respond to the needs of South Africans.
The outcomes of the local government elections of November 2021 provided South Africans and residents in large cities with an introduction to the complexity of coalition politics and whether prioritisation towards service delivery can be achieved while elected representatives manoeuvre through the political landscape.
The July unrest and looting (our own bit of insurrection) was a stark reminder of what happens when broad coalitions are forced into executive authority such as our Cabinet. Similarly, the devastating fire within our parliamentary precinct has again highlighted how fractured our governing apparatus remains, and how deficiencies extend far beyond a divided executive.
The systemic and pervasive nature of these failures have not simply taken root across our government but have also been inculcated as a culture by which our governments function — or rather fail to function. The ensuing legacy of these failures continue to affect the lives of ordinary people who are unable to access proper and basic services, are forced into a poverty cycle, and a society that is unable to fully realise its own aspirations.
The headwinds continue to rattle our society, all while the body politic refuses to change and address the fundamental issue that continues to force us into a despair spiral. We have been forced to accept the debasement of our institutions and the debasement of our politics.
Notions such as service to people and the republic have become both novel and foreign. Perhaps, rather suitable for an idealist or worse for a political apparatchik to manipulate truth and fact towards fanciful alternative realities. The vision that South Africa requires cannot form or take root in this vortex of inaction and refusal to recommit to service of people and country. South Africans have no choice but to pick up the baton once more — and force those entrusted to lead to simply do the right thing.
This is not as simple as our desire and wish to have a better South Africa. It will require sacrifice, but more importantly, it will require South Africans to discard their sentimental notions and hopes of a freedom movement, and begin to imagine an alternative possibility of governance anchored on service to the people.
In many respects, the efforts will require mass mobilisation from street level into broader regional movements that begin to not only talk about the lived experience of people but also move towards meaningful and tactical action that makes a difference to that lived experience of people. The shift will require us not to simply talk about reforming our politics but rather about a wholesale realignment of our politics, and the underlying structures that have allowed us to stray so far from the constitutional aspiration of committing to improving the “quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.
The democratisation of the public square is the battle that South Africans must embrace. As we tackle broader issues in society, we can no longer look to moments such as the 10 February State of the Nation Address, but rather we need to begin to ourselves build “a united and democratic South Africa”.
The Expert Panel appointed by President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa into the July unrest quoted a faith-based leader who said “it is time for South Africans to accept that those who have must share with those who do not. It is that simple, really”.
South Africans are called in this moment not simply to acknowledge the dire circumstances millions live under, but rather to begin the meaningful work of addressing the structural, systemic and organisational issues that continue to perpetuate this unacceptable state.
Legislative reform of our electoral system will not be able to turn the tide. Efforts by government alone will not be able to achieve the far broader transformative work that is required to confront our collective challenges.
The first step must be — as South Africans have before battled for proper treatment for HIV treatment or demanding access to higher education — committing and re-establishing grassroots community action and activism. Activism that is not focused on singular objectives or polarised agendas, but rather activism that is focused on broad and inclusive social justice. This work requires all of us to commit to working far more and confronting and eradicating the polarising forces that will stand in our way. DM