As they usually say after an election, the people have spoken. The question is: What did they say?
In my estimation, what we understood them to be saying depends on our economic, social, political and historical vantage points. It also depends on whether we see our past, present and future as mutually exclusive in relation to the national strategic goals of South Africa and the strategic options, therefore, that are available to us. For those of us for whom the past, present and future are mutually exclusive, the imperative is to exclude the relationship between the failures of the past and the present, on the one hand, and the different futures from which we must choose when we consider our strategic options, on the other.
For me, the challenge lies in listening very carefully to what voters said in the May general election. Voters want the same thing, but do not want the same thing for everyone. To some extent, their political preferences speak to the fact that they want the same thing for people like them, whether it is on the basis of race, class or other identities, on the basis of which the other must be rendered distant from social and economic resources. Unfortunately, some of the election campaign messaging relied on divisive interpretations of our apartheid past and our postapartheid reality of the past 20 years. It is, therefore, not surprising that racial tension has been one of the main components of a toxic discourse in the few weeks since the election.
To me, this betrays a failure on our part to realise that the first task after a bruising election is for all of us – voters, nonvoters and political parties – to heal the wounds caused by divisive electioneering. Fundamentally, however, what this betrays is the failure to recognise that, if we remain as internally divided as we are today, it is going to be very difficult to unite behind a common programme for the future. More importantly, we engage in mutually destructive behaviour, both as social partners and groups of citizens whose sense of belonging is defined in other ways to the detriment and exclusion of the realisation that all South Africans, irrespective of race, language, class, gender, sexual orientation, culture or country of origin, have a common destiny.
Unless we have strategic conversations and make strategic choices founded on this understanding, ours will definitely be a future of instability and decline. During the postelection period, we must avoid sliding back into our comfort zones of destructive tendencies, no matter how profitable they may be. Instead, we must be brutally honest about what is holding South Africa back and about the tough decisions and compromises we need to make.
As I have said already, unity is essential. But this unity cannot be about the elimination of difference because a sense of sameness that is achieved that way will stifle our innovation and creativity of thought and doing. The next important ingredient is leadership. Instead of spending the next decade bemoaning lack of leadership as we did with regard to the last, we must recognise that ours is a crisis of leadership but not a crisis of a dearth of leaders. To recognise this is to understand that the main challenge of leadership is to unlock the leadership potential of our country by instilling in leaders across the board the understanding that national success must be a function of the ability and willingness to lead beyond the confines of narrow and short-term interests.
The third ingredient relates to an appreciation of the fact that what makes our strategic choices difficult is the fact that these choices must be made in the world as it is and not in the world as we wish it to be. In other words, we need to approach the national tasks and challenges at hand with an attitude of realism that, in part, is informed by a long-term vision of change. This should be a vision of maximising opportunities in the context of constraints imposed by objective realities in the global and domestic terrains. This dictates that we become even more brutally honest about subjective weaknesses and failures at the level of strategic, economic, policy and political choices. Without this kind of honesty, it will not be possible to build the kind of capacity we need to drive change in the economy, State and in society.
The next decade must, therefore, be about building strong pillars of capacity in the State, economy and society as a whole with the understanding that leadership, policy choices, behaviour and desired outcomes and outputs must be properly aligned. We have a choice – we can sink deeper into the quicksand of destructive behaviours and choices at political, policy and economic level, or we can elect a future for our society that foregrounds the greater good.