Defend Truth

Opinionista

We live in a democracy that was born out of pain and struggle — let’s not squander it

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Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar was raised by his determined maternal family. He is an admitted attorney (formerly of the corporate type), with exposure in the public sector, management consulting, advisory and private sector. The focus of his work is about enabling equity, justice and leveraging public policy effectively. He had a stint in the South African party-political environment and found the experience a deeply educational one.

The opportunity of this election is that South Africans are once again being reminded that South Africa is not defined by ineffective political leaders, but rather by the spirit and tenacity of a people who continue to refuse and defy defeat.

Thirty years ago, there was a sense of anticipation, fear, optimism and a collective sense that a country could be repurposed. From decades of oppression and degradation by an illegitimate regime, there was a clear path towards a better future – a future that was not gifted or simply obtained, but one that took countless lives, and robbed opportunity and promise from millions of South Africans.

Thirty years ago in April 1994, an eight-year-old joined his family in the voting lines in Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats of Cape Town, and millions of others, in the belief that our country was not gifted, but rather that it required our participation for a government that is mandated to serve the people of the Republic.

There is no denying that communities, where that eight-year-old lived and to which his family was displaced, are yearning for more. Yearning for a country that can live up to its founding; a country with a Constitution that implores us to all improve “the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.

Today, with a national and provincial election two weeks away, the disillusionment across the country is palpable. 

The optimism of 30 years ago has been eroded by sequential and multiple failures, coupled with intentional malfeasance and self-interest by the governing party, and the inability of the current crop of opposition parties to mount a convincing argument to the voters of the country.

After the 1994 election 30 years ago, too many South Africans took their hands off the wheel.

The disillusionment in some ways has been entrenched by the failures of coalition politics to shift the needle in South Africa’s metros, which instead have been riddled with consequential failures that continue to compromise service delivery for the most vulnerable.

However, the opportunity of this election is that South Africans are once again being reminded that South Africa is not defined by ineffective political leaders, but rather by the spirit and tenacity of a people that continue to refuse and defy defeat.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

Over the past year, and through this relatively muted election campaign, we have seen an important opportunity for new leaders to step up – not in a bid to save South Africa, but rather to work with communities and people for real participation, and for a shift in political culture.

After the 1994 election 30 years ago, too many South Africans took their hands off the wheel. We anticipated that a government in service of the people, mandated to serve the interests of the people, would be enough – instead, we have been confronted by betrayal and the accumulation of wealth and power for a few.

In two weeks, young children will watch as adult South Africans (at least those registered) show a real commitment to participatory democracy, underpinned by an enabling Constitution that holds public power in check.

For us to properly enable the next period of our democracy, it is critical that we remind young people, friends and family that this is the moment when we can redirect the future of South Africa.

We can collectively redirect and shift the needle for those people and communities that have been ignored for too long, and perhaps we can practice real commitment to building a country that honours the sacrifices that many have made and continue to make for freedom.

In two weeks, South Africans across the country will remind the governing party (across the country, and also in provinces) that public power is not exercised without due care and consideration.

The power of the people will be an important reminder to mark 30 years of our constitutional democracy in South Africa – far more meaningful and impactful than the country’s political elite may appreciate.

However, the only way to ensure coalition politics does not leave a bitter taste in our mouths – and more lost years of effective government – is through the active participation of South Africans. 

We must not be swayed by those willing to engage in ethno-nationalism, and the identity politics of fear-mongering.

The political parties seeking the votes of South Africans must be reminded that the mandate granted to them on 29 May is a reminder that they work on borrowed time and that they have no choice but to serve the interests of the Republic.

The choice before South Africans, at both the national level and across the provinces, is to demand more – to rebuild our country in a way that can honour “those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land” – and to leverage the democratic principles that are embedded in our founding to finally confront the triple threat of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

This is a time for South Africans to reject the policies of the day that have entrenched inequality and unemployment, embraced wildly inadequate thinking on rebuilding our cities to reject apartheid spatial planning, and elevated political leaders from freely elected representatives into apparatchiks of a broken political system.

The only way to remedy this crisis is for us to punish those political parties in the sixth Parliament, and to introduce a swathe of new leaders who are driven by principles and are committed to the service of the people.

The prospect of new leaders, driven by values and an urgent desire to serve the people, is exactly why our imperfect democracy is underpinned by an enabling and progressive Constitution – a document that does not simply exist to provide parameters for our country and its leaders, but rather imposes a progressive and continuing obligation on our elected leaders to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with those values.

It is a Constitution that implores the people to participate actively in the wellbeing of our democracy, and which secures their place in this democracy.

We must not be swayed by those willing to engage in ethno-nationalism, and the identity politics of fear-mongering. Instead, we must ensure that the right people and new leaders are infused into South Africa’s seventh Parliament (and across our provincial legislatures).

There is a desperation and an urgency across South Africa that must be responded to. 

Our elected representatives in this next chapter of South Africa’s democracy must be given notice that now is the time for urgency and commitment – a commitment that is not focused on perpetuating the fear-mongering of xenophobia or ethno-nationalism or peppered with the conveniently hollow rhetoric of fear and power.

Real power has always resided in the people of South Africa, and on 29 May, South Africans can begin the work of taking back power from those who have abused and misused our trust. DM

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    Andrew, all you say is good, apart from one thing. Unfortunately, there are still way too many people in SA who remain under-educated living mainly in the rural areas who wouldn’t understand a word you’re saying (even if they could speak English) but will carry on voting for the ANC without challenging them. The only hope for this country is for the rest of us to keep ploughing on (and voting DA) and doing it for ourselves. Like with solar power!

  • Sean Hammon says:

    Writing to non-readers. Fat chance. Africa always had the writing on the wall. The unscrupulous, murderous thieves are firmly in power, and no amount of wordy light-headed frothing over your favourite nail polish or cappuccino is going to change that.

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