South Africans are desperate for a new beginning, for a return to the democratic values of 1994. It has been argued that president Cyril Ramaphosa's hand has been strengthened in the ANC, which should give us hope that a programme of renewal of South African democracy and socio-economic transformation will be implemented. But this is not the case. For genuine renewal to take place, we need a reset through broad-based national dialogue.
I am on Facebook (FB) but am cautious about expressing views because it tends to lead to a range of conversations, often with Facebook friends with whom I would prefer not to engage. I prefer to simply share news and opinion pieces that may not be accessible to many others.
Periodically Facebook posts what they call a “memory”, resurrecting what someone has posted before and they ask whether that person wants to share it again. In my experience, it is often something that does not warrant a re-run.
But a post that was written on New Year eight years ago, at the height of the Jacob Zuma era, has come up as a “memory”. And the concerns I expressed there are exactly the same as those that I and many others have today, after some years of what was initially dubbed a “new dawn”:
“This is to wish all FB friends a good 2015 and hoping that this will be a year where we can take steps to recover the democratic promise of 1994, restore constitutionalism, curb patronage and corruption, put limits on state and private violence and put patriarchy on the defensive.”
I inserted a preface this year: “The sentiments expressed 8 years ago are the same as I wish for this year - it is telling how the darkness persists and we need to find a way of finding the light of renewed freedom.”
South Africans want a fresh start
South Africans are desperate for a new beginning, for a return to the values of 1994, ideas and ideals that derived from a long, hard liberation struggle, that cost many lives, much suffering and sacrifice by very many people, mainly from the African community, but also from Indians, Coloureds, and a significant number from the privileged white community.
That struggle aimed to build a “new South Africa”, which would turn its back on the racism and state terror that characterised all features of apartheid, impacting on people's lives, livelihood, liberties, cultures, customs, belief systems, their right to be what they wanted to be and their right to be different as well as the same.
The ANC conference in December created a buzz amongst commentators who suggest that the results of the gathering, mainly devoted to elections to high office, has “strengthened the hand” of President Cyril Ramaphosa. This has been depicted as reason to hope for the “renewal” of South Africa, a slogan or phrase attached to the campaign of Ramaphosa for re-election as ANC president and ultimately for the country's elections in 2024.
This optimism does not derive from evidence of a vision for renewal, analysis of practice based on experience of Ramaphosa's leadership and the ANC's performance in government as well as its activities as a political organisation.
It cannot be based on the type of individuals who have been elected to leadership in the organisation. Many of these do not inspire confidence that they have qualities that can lead us to a better life, out of the mire of corruption, violence, especially gender and sexually based violence and a range of other debasing and illegal practices.
These are not people that evoke trust and confidence that the present state leadership has turned its back on the corruption of the Zuma era. Indeed, many of those who featured significantly in that period have been returned to high office, high up on electoral lists and amongst the top leadership. They have marks of suspicion against their names through naming in the [Chief Justice Raymond] Zondo commission, and other acts or allegations of illegality of various kinds. Indeed, amongst the top 15 listed for the NEC are included a person convicted of gender-based violence and others alleged by Zondo and other processes to have benefited from state capture.
This illegality, where it entails money, is not perpetrated against some abstract notion of who the victim is, but actions that rob the fiscus, that further deplete the resources that are necessary in order to better the lives of the underprivileged people in South Africa, to improve the conditions of the majority who remain oppressed under ANC-led rule.
When one looks at what emerged from five days of an ANC Conference, whose work was not completed and thus had to be reconvened last week, there is little to show for it except an election. This saw the return of many who have displayed unexplained wealth, and other allegations of wrongdoing, for which they have not yet accounted.
My understanding of leadership is that it cannot be looked to alone to achieve liberatory and emancipatory goals. It has to be based on solid organisation, which is preferably mass-based and mainly rooted in the oppressed communities. What is troubling about this ANC conference, is that the delegates from branches, who form most of the four to five thousand people who voted, themselves decided to elect these flawed people to leadership in the ANC.
And amongst very few of the statements of delegates to this conference, at every level, can one find an idea that has not been expressed before. These phrases do not warrant repetition. One hears nothing but cliches from an organisation which once evoked excitement amongst the majority of the people of South Africa, which inspired people to struggle for the Constitution that we now have, that is liberatory and emancipatory, the Constitution and values that were meant to guide people in the period that lay ahead.
That Ramaphosa's hand has been strengthened, it is said, should give us hope that a programme of renewal of South African democracy and socio-economic transformation will in fact, be implemented.
The evidence from the last four years of Ramaphosa's leadership must be taken into account and not simply whether people have decided to vote for him in ANC elections and supported his “slate” of candidates. There is little evidence from the years of Ramaphosa's Presidency of the ANC and of the country to suggest that he is committed to transformation of the living conditions of the oppressed, committed to non-violence, to end the violence perpetrated against the most vulnerable in this country, the oppressed people of this country.
I consciously use the word oppressed because those who bore the brunt of apartheid oppression come from the same communities who continue to suffer violence and violation today.
There is little in the record of Ramaphosa to suggest anything more than a self-indulgent, narcissistic attachment to the idea of being president, a presidency that has little content. What ideas, what vision, what ethics, if any drive this man, and for that matter the organisation that he leads?
We live in a country where violence is an everyday phenomenon. That issue does not preoccupy the ANC, whose previous base community suffer the most from acts of aggression of various types, whether in streets that do not have adequate or any lighting, public swimming pools where racists still do not recognise the rights of all, many areas where it is still generally unsafe to be a woman or from the LGBTQI+ communities or an African or Asian from outside South Africa.
Schools that are now open to many more people than under apartheid are insecure places where stabbings and deaths occur. Hospitals are collapsing, depleted by the lawlessness that enables stealing of basic resources needed to run a medical facility. The very buildings collapse or are burnt down and not repaired/rebuilt within a reasonable time, making the constitutional right to health care of little value.
Tragic floodings cannot be managed with basic state support to the victims without fraud and diversion of relief funds. One of those who diverted water to his private home is at the top of the ANC NEC list.
Those who are propagating this notion of a fresh sense of hope, amongst the media, are again presenting an interpretation which does not bear meanings that are a valid guide to the public.
It's very important that we do not buy into this idea of politics as one where only elections matter in South Africa and in particular elections of a dying organisation, that is the ANC, as the key to our future. There is no doubt that the ANC remains the strongest organisation in the country - for the moment. But since it has died as a morally infused organisation, since it has died as an organisation that inspires and draws followers that respond to emancipatory politics, it is important that we recognise the truth about what it in fact is. We need to prepare for an alternative that does not yet exist. Sunday Times deputy editor Mike Siluma recognises this and joins others in calling for a national dialogue of “stakeholders”, a sentiment with which I agree:
“After 28 years in government, the party that played a pivotal role in freeing the country has run out of ideas.
“It needs to jettison the assumption that it is the sole repository of wisdom and solutions, or that it can single-handedly fix the national crisis.
“What the country needs is a reset through a national dialogue of stakeholders. This is an undertaking all South Africans who love their country should be able to sign on for.” (note: the linked article is behind a paywall).
To take this further, we need to ask: who are the stakeholders who need to bring people together? Who ought to convene such a gathering or series of meetings/consultations? What are the central issues that should be the basis for such consultations?
The time for such a gathering, also previously advanced by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and the South African Council of Churches has come. In fact, it is urgent, for we have no organisation or grouping of organisations to rescue the country from its current crisis.
My belief is that it is important that the notion of stakeholder must be interpreted broadly, including a range of sectors who suffer under current misrule and wish to see remedies that restore democratic trajectories and social justice. These include workers, unemployed, business, faith based communities, political parties, social movements concerned with a range of issues like land, education, health and other burning questions, and of course welfare organisations like the Gift of the Givers and smaller ones that step in where the state has failed.
This “re-set” will not happen overnight and it needs people of goodwill to listen carefully to one another, to try to find one other and develop a framework to rescue our country and resurrect the spirit of hope, working together to find the peace and freedom we so badly need.
Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.