Defend Truth

Opinionista

It’s no surprise that South Africans are facing the crucial May elections with apathy

mm

Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

South Africa needs to forge a new kind of citizen activism if we are to truly save ourselves from the venal politicians who govern.

Listening to Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen make a pre-election speech and refer to parties campaigning in the Western Cape as “mercenaries”, one has a moment of despair for such an unnecessary comment, but also one lacking in nous. One may not like one’s political opponents but to call Rise Mzansi a “mercenary” party is a little bit much.

Steenhuisen is a clunky politician who is mostly not the best interlocutor. Far better are his Western Cape colleagues, Geordin Hill-Lewis and Alan Winde, who at the time of the stray comment were working hard dealing with flood disasters across the Cape. Their leader’s “mercenary” comments would have been unhelpful.

Support for the DA, specifically in small towns and farming areas in the Western Cape, cannot be guaranteed. There’s something brewing and Steenhuisen would do well to be aware of that and not inflame matters by thoughtless rhetoric.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections hub

But of course, Steenhuisen’s offence seems mild (because there is a difference between the criticism he received for the comment on X and the real world, it must be said) compared to the increasingly lame President Cyril Ramaphosa who told us recently that his party was doing “all it can” to deal with crime. Really?

Then there’s the ANC bloviator, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi, promising jobs to unemployed youth which he surely knows will never materialise? And convicted criminal Gayton McKenzie spreading xenophobic lies across the country, seeking only to divide communities already embittered and embattled.

Read more in Daily Maverick: You’re wrong, Gayton McKenzie: Undocumented children do have the right to basic education

Or Patricia De Lille in her latest reincarnation, pledging to “end the suffering”. She obviously doesn’t do irony. She is part of Ramaphosa’s government which in large part causes the suffering she refers to by uncaring and corrupt governance. What does the “Good” party actually stand for, one has to ask?

Is it any surprise then that South Africans are facing this election with apathy, if early polling and the 2019 election are anything to go by?

As Azola Ndongeni pointed out when writing about the importance of the youth vote, “the statistics from the last election cycle paint a troubling picture of the state of youth voter participation in South Africa. According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), only 56% of eligible voters aged 18-29 registered to vote in the 2019 national and provincial elections. Furthermore, voter turnout in this age group was a meagre 46%, significantly lower than the national average of 66%.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA youth not apathetic but no longer believe elections are best path to change

Counter-intuitive as it may sound given that the elections are almost upon us, we need to think beyond them. Now is a definitive time to draw lessons from the past and think about the future South Africa shaped by citizens who demand accountability from those in power.

Idasa reflection

In these times of trenchant disagreement, cul de sac politics and dangerous men and women who hold power, one often wonders what the role of an Idasa-type organisation might have been? Idasa closed its doors 11 years ago this month. Its lessons remain, especially in a country which is not particularly good at reflection — there’s too much happening and we need to keep moving, moving, moving.

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (Idasa) was founded in 1987 by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, members of the opposition, in what became known as “the last white Parliament”. Slabbert and Boraine, sensing the impasse of the complex time that was the late 1980s, understood the political moment better than most.

Idasa sought to bring the “mutually hurting stalemate” that prevailed in South Africa to an end by building dialogue between the Afrikaner establishment and the ANC in exile and within South Africa.

Two of its most significant meetings were held in Dakar in 1987. That in fact signalled Idasa’s own beginnings and formed its deep roots. The 61 mostly white Afrikaners met with then-banned ANC leaders in exile to talk through the possibility of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Africa.

As Max du Preez wrote, “the Dakar initiative was followed up with several Idasa-organised meetings between the ANC in exile and business people, writers, students and other groups over the next three years. Talking had become fashionable.”

Soon thereafter it arranged meetings of writers, public intellectuals and artists from across the political spectrum at Victoria Falls. That convening power was always part of its organisational DNA.

After 1994, Idasa’s strength lay in its ability to shift with the times and be nimble in the face of change; always inventive, from its HIV-Aids and governance work to its work on transparency and accountability, the Afrobarometer, local government and citizen activism, Idasa broke new and interesting ground.

For whatever its detractors have said about Idasa and its liberal roots over the years, its employment record will show that it provided a home for the most diverse, talented, politically astute research staff one could probably hope to find. From journalists to lawyers, anthropologists, economists and political scientists, Idasa was the unlikely home for us all.

What set Idasa apart was its ability to take on the thorny issues. There were probably two issues that marked the 2000s at Idasa – its work on the Arms Deal, and money and politics.

Democracy and the Arms Deal

In 2000, Idasa recognised that the way South Africa handled the multi-billion rand Arms Deal investigation would be a litmus test for our democracy. At that point, Idasa was the only non-governmental organisation focusing on the work of the Public Accounts Committee and its battles with an executive trying to intervene and stop an investigation into the deal.

Those were difficult days of political interference, and Idasa’s intervention, small though it was, was an important moment. Its report titled, “Democracy and the Arms Deal”, released in May 2003, outlined the impact the deal and the subsequent lack of accountability had on Parliament and other democratic institutions.

In 2005, after lobbying intensely for the regulation of private donations to political parties, Idasa moved to sue the ANC and four opposition parties to reveal their sources of private funding in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia). Idasa lost the case as Judge Ben Griessel found, inter alia, that political parties were private bodies and therefore had no obligation to reveal their sources of funding.

The issue came full circle from those early days of Idasa’s persistent advocacy when My Vote Counts and others effectively picked up the baton in later years. The issue remains thorny, specifically in light of the latest attempts by the ANC to unpick that legislation.

But it was this sort of groundbreaking work that made Idasa unique. Idasa attracted friends and enemies in equal measure and across the political divide. As staff, we always thought this meant that we were doing something right.

On any given day it walked the tightrope of being a “critical ally” of government — praising where necessary and offering criticism where necessary. There were lighter moments too. Then Minister of Public Service and Administration, the fierce Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, once started a speech on ethics in the public service in Parliament glaring up at us in the public gallery and declared “even Idasa would agree with me on this…”.

Looking back, there were peaks and troughs, and mistakes were made. Yet, 2008 and the global financial crisis meant a virtual drying up of donor agency money, especially to countries like South Africa. Donors then, and still largely now, see South Africa’s challenges as self-inflicted wounds which they believe we have the wherewithal to resolve ourselves.

Their interventions have been far narrower in recent years and less focused on dealing with the arc of the transition, how we got here and preserving crucial institutional memory of those within civil society who worked closely on trying to build effective democratic institutions, but also on issues of government ethics and the slow work of building a broader culture of transparency.

There are reasons why Parliament is unable to hold the executive to account effectively, and that emasculation of institutions had its roots in the Arms Deal. Idasa’s closure has doubtless left a void that must be filled by the active citizens and progressive donors who remain committed to the values of transformative constitutionalism.

South Africa needs to forge a new kind of citizen activism if we are to truly save ourselves from the venal politicians who govern.

Somehow, however, we also need to make space for some of that original “Idasa-type” work which convened groups across different spheres of society to deal with complex problems through dialogue. Such deep reflection on citizenship and what it demands of us seems more necessary than ever – perhaps especially during the fierce urgency of now.

For we are learning the hard way that democracy is a slow, obstacle-ridden marathon and not a sprint — and its gains can be very easily lost. DM

Judith February headed Idasa’s Political Information and Monitoring Service from 2003 to 2012.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Denise Smit says:

    You are lame. Of course the first party to attack the DA and then it drivels off to nothing much with the other parties mentioned. What would Zibi want to do in the best run province first if he really wants to change SA. That is not where the situation is dire. It makes one wonder. And then his party has plans about everything but can not in any way work out or express what that plans would be. Why do you not also state this in your selfy

    • Grumpy Old Man says:

      Good Morning Denise. I disagree with you. I think Judith’s opinion piece is well written, constructive and offers food for thought.
      Whereas you are entitled to your own opinion – I did not see her’s as an assault on the DA. Indeed, Judith states herself that the reaction on X to John’s comments were (as most things are on X) blown up and beyond reasonable proportion.
      It’s not that we are all not ‘triggered’. I for instance cannot objectively listen to certain politicians or commentators comments. When I am triggered, I find myself not engaging objectively with the content – simply because I have already determined to find things I disagree with (and you know what, I always find those things). I think the condition is referred to as ‘resonance’
      If I can offer you any advice Denise – it’s being aware ‘of self’ (and there is nothing wrong with being you) and of those things that don’t ‘bring out the best’ in you. It follows that when we are ‘not at our best’ the tendency is to not engage constructively & put our best foot forward

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        Thank you, good response. I completely understand that triggering effect you are talking about. It happens to me primarily when people lie, are completely unreasonable, or rely on false equivalency to make their point.
        This week an example of this behaviour for instance was Melanie’s Verwoerds assertion:

        It seems Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen decided to rather let the city fall apart than make the deal. It worries investors that this “let it rather burn and we will later pick up the pieces” attitude might also prevail after the election in May.

        It’s not just incorrect (there were good reasons for the DA to step back, other parties caused these), it’s just plain viscous. One honestly really has to wonder where SA would be if the DA wouldnt constantly call out the ANC on its corruption and incompetence! So such an accusation is not an opinion, it’s a flat out lie.

        In this case I think its fine to be a little triggered and push back against the BS.
        Critiquing and arguing against the DA is fine, but spreading untruths and unfounded accusations, holding the DA to impossibly high standards is something that needs to be called out.
        Judith is one of the journalists that actually is quite balanced compared to others on this platform.

      • Denise Smit says:

        Grumpyold man , good morning from Grumpy old woman. In spite of you lecturing me as if I am a child I maintain what I said. My problem really with all these opinion pieces in the DM is that whatever they say they start with the DA in however they can to attract attention. Is the DA the big problem at the moment, if they are honest they would think about what and how to say it, and who to begin the conversation about

    • Grumpy Old Man says:

      Good Morning Denise. I disagree with you. I think Judith’s opinion piece is well written, constructive and offers food for thought.
      Whereas you are entitled to your own opinion – I did not see her’s as an assault on the DA. Indeed, Judith states herself that the reaction on X to John’s comments were (as most things are on X) blown up and beyond reasonable proportion.
      It’s not that we are all not ‘triggered’. I for instance cannot objectively listen to certain politicians or commentators comments. When I am triggered, I find myself not engaging objectively with the content – simply because I have already determined to find things I disagree with (and you know what, I always find those things). I think the condition is referred to as ‘resonance’
      If I can offer you any advice Denise – it’s being aware ‘of self’ (and there is nothing wrong with being you) and of those things that don’t ‘bring out the best’ in you. It follows that when we are ‘not at our best’ the tendency is to not engage constructively & put our best foot forward

  • ST ST says:

    True Judith.

    Sad thing is most citizens are either sick, tired, hungry, in denial, and or in despair. This doesn’t often invoke activism. Rather, it leads to confusion, blame, complaints, infighting, other self defeating regressive behaviour. Corrupt leaders know it and use it.

    Anger will do…if understood and channeled correctly. Anger leads to revolution. We are not there yet. And so it continues. Unless we inspire society through civil action. So kudos to the civil society. That’s our last hope.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Thoughtful and insightful article as usual, thank you Judith.

  • Rae Earl says:

    A well written and illuminating article on what Idasa was all about, things I was ignorant of, thank you Judith. In the void left by Idasa’s demise it seems to me we now have only have our independent press and investigative journalists to fill the gap. And fill it they do with DM, News 24, leading the fight with support from other media with integrity as the basis for their work. We are all indebted to them.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    I have no idea where Zibi comes from, thinking another wannabe without credibility or background. Not the only one of course, but at least not tarnished by corruption unlike many.

  • Alaric Nitak says:

    Mercenaries are persons who will fight for anyone for the money. I would say that description perfectly fits the rats and mice “parties” who are ganging up with Gayton McKenzie to “fight” the DA in the Western Cape.

  • John Kannemeyer says:

    Agree Judith, the worry I have is that, instead of focussing on what the various parties actually deliver to their constituents, everyone seems to focus on the various Political party leaders’ personalities and utterances. It seems that many of the voters don’t actually know what governments, be it local or national, are actually there for.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Couldn’t agree more. A party should be judged on the quality of the sewerage systems, road markings and the cleanliness of streets and audit reports in the areas it runs. We overwhelmingly vote for just about anything other than the stuff that actually improves our lives and it’s both sad and pathetic.

      • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

        Exactly! Everyone can say anything, but what is important is what they achieve, construct, develop and the progress they make for the good of all inhabitants.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Thank you for writing a balanced article, these are in such short supply these days and a welcome change.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    A good analysis of the shortcomings of political nous.
    Promoting what you have achieved, providing examples of your successes and clearly laying out your future, practical and achievable plans to the voters, is far better politics than using personal attacks on any opposition parties. South Africa needs politicians who concentrate on being effective in convincing the voters of what they can deliver, and then delivering the goods as promised. Putting your money where your mouth is, beats criticism of the opposition.
    Furthermore, the short-sighted approach to urban areas will never gain the voter support necessary to become a serious challenger for majority rule. Having previously lived in Transkei for four years, it exposed me to the many millions of potential voters across South Africa who have no concern about electricity supply, potholes, sewerage spills, water supply or multiple mayors. They live in traditional settings and hold traditional views of who holds the power in their communities. The aura of Nelson Mandela, inextricably linked to the ANC, has them in thrall.
    Until a political party has the nous to include senior politicians who can connect across all sectors of South African society and gain the confidence of these voters, the proliferation of parties of wannabe ‘Presidents’ will continue to vex the political landscape of the country.
    As much as Judith hopes for an Idasa, do the party leaders have the desire to participate when leaving their egos at home?

  • Colin Braude says:

    My disappointment in this article is heightened by my previous respect for Ms February.

    The headline is about voters’ apathy yet, after briefly slagging at some political parties & politicians, the article is nostalgia for the NGO where she spent nine years.

    NGOs, PBOs, charities & other civil-society groups do good work, but only government has the power, juristic clout and funds to fix the failing state of our country. All the good work and good works of Idasa admirable as it was, has in her own words, petered out.

    Sadly, most citizens prefer not to get involved in politics leaving it to the worst and best of us to go for gravy or public service.

    The reality is that, on 29 May, SA has to choose between more statism, business-hostile racism and corruption (the E Germany & N Korea option) or switching to a market-friendly, accountability-focused enabling economy (the W Germany and S Korea option). The former is represented by the ANC, EFF, MK, RM and “azanian socialist) parties, all of whom want to be a “better ANC”, the latter by the DA/MPC group, with many trying to be a “better DA” without being the DA, with PA and Good open to the highest bidder.

    With the IEC studiously avoiding educating voters what a vote means and its power, it follows that so many voters see no point in voting. The media and IEC should be filling that vacuum; their failure to do so (like this article) is part of the problem.

    Meanwhile this publication bewails *its*lack of support.

  • Robin MOORE says:

    Warmly endorse Judith’s comments about the need for a contemporary “Idasa” predicated on addressing the mess we are in at the moment, and giving shape to the kind of ‘adaptive governance’ needed for our future, addressing both our home-grown crises, and the global ones rapidly bearing down on us.

  • Breyten Breytenbach says:

    First things first – before these (and they) are also forgotten in the gurgle of a once fine dream, patiently and, mostly, selflessly worked for, going down the drain of a failed state. (‘Failed’ except for the very fat hyenas, to the multinationals and international, all-pervasive capitalism, obviously…) So: although no-one can speak on behalf of the dead I’d like to say, « Thank you, dear Judith February, for remembering Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Borraine. And the many more who accompanied them, followed them, debated with them, believed like them that a better future of accountability and a creative public imagination rooted deeply in ethics and humanism (ubuntu, yes) was possible in a country with such a diversity of peoples, so much inequality and pain and bloodletting and indignity and exploitation… and so much courage. Indien ek my dit mag veroorloof: dankie namens Van Zyl en Alex. They exemplified decency, common sense, commitment, the privilege of being alive and active. They tried to do the impossible. Because they knew this is what we, as humanity, as a species, as Africans must do.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.