Home|[in] focus|No More Shuffling: the Time for Exceptionalism Is Putting People First
Categories: [in] focus

by Sanusha Naidu


Categories: [in] focus

by Sanusha Naidu




“When the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones returns to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you, it is you who belong to this land”. Native American Quote

In the past several weeks the unconscionable has happened in South Africa’s body politic: the country’s democratic dispensation reached a new low. If the greed, malfeasance and lack of respect for the electorate was inconceivable before, it has now reached unprecedented heights that can only be described as blatant abhorrence for the Constitution and the daily struggles of honest ordinary South Africans. It is unfathomable that in a time when the country is in an existential political, economic and social crisis, when the mortality rate is growing exponentially daily as the result of the Pandemic, and when there should be a modicum of compassion and empathy for the poor, marginalised and vulnerable, gluttony and self-aggrandisement has become the default position for ‘it is our turn to eat’.

With that said is there any way back from this abyss?

Right now most, if not all, South Africans have gone beyond the tipping point and are nothing more than plain and simply angry and frustrated for being sold the false dawn that has become the negotiated political and economic transition. There can no longer be excuses or more commissions of inquiry to diagnose the crisis. The majority of the citizens in the country are precisely aware of what the problem is because it is the indigent that bear the burden and consequences of those who use their positions of power and political connections for selfish gains. But for how long can those in government and the Party expect the South African citizenry to remain complacent and resilient in the face of this contemptuous behaviour by those holding public office, and in the ruling Party. Of course, at the same time we cannot turn a blind eye to similar derisive attitudes and activities by other political and non-political actors towards the plight of the poor and the underclass.

For the first time in my career as a political scientist I am confronted by the dilemma that no amount of analytical responses can be applied to explain the current situation facing our country. If anything it boils down to the most basic issue of human nature. And it is essentially this inherent challenge that bring us to the most fundamental point encapsulated in the quote above that this country does not belong to any single entity, political party or group of people to do as they please. Therefore the time has come for hard choices to be made in terms of The Party versus The State.

South African Exceptionalism?

At the start of the country’s lockdown measures, the leadership of the Ramaphosa Presidency was hailed as decisive. It reinforced the image and return to the nostalgic days of the post 1994 period where South Africa was seen as exceptional in taking the high road when it came to the rule of law, and upholding the principles and values contained in the Freedom Charter, notwithstanding the adoption of a people-centred Constitution. The announcements of the budgetary relief packages aimed at assisting those materially vulnerable, expediting access to water, makeshift housing and sanitation, providing shelter to the homeless and the vulnerable were seen as South Africa rebooting its exceptionalism both at home and in continental and global affairs.

But it did not take long, however, for the narrative to start to shift. Leaving aside the economic effects of the stringent lockdown measures, the endemic nature of structural violence in society became more acute than previously. This became apparent in the weaknesses of South African Police Service (SAPS) and the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) when it came to carrying out civilian protection. The rise in Gender and Child based violence increased, thereby highlighting the social sclerosis that has paralysed the state. By referring to the COVID-19 virus as the invisible enemy, President Ramaphosa was also pointing to the masked scourge of what Frantz Fanon calls the Manichean Psychology that had to come to prevail as an affliction of our past dominating our present. This affliction can be described as the continual oppression based on the dehumanising experience of colonialism. In South Africa’s case labelled as ‘Colonialism of a Special Type’. But in the current context of the state of the nation and nature it has also come to be symbolised by the intrinsic plaque of inequality and what can be identified as the ‘rentier state’ syndrome. It is therefore unsurprising that when the relief monetary packages were put in place including the COVID-19 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) tenders, the vultures were already circling. And once again our preoccupation with the need to be exceptional became just that a fixation and a figment of the imagination.

The Beginning of the End? Or the End of the Beginning?

Reading Stephen Grootes’ analysis in the Daily Maverick (17 August 2020) could not be more profound in asking the quintessential question “Moving to Level 2: Is this end of the beginning?”. By the same token, Marianne Merten, writing in the same publication and in the same day, highlights that we cannot escape ‘to date the government has been dawdling. The exact mix and interplay of a lack of political will, intra-ANC factional politicking, and deficient state capacity remains unclear’. And so it is apparent that the country is not just at cross-roads. It remains paved with the travesties of many Marikanas littering our democratic landscape to date.

If the warning signs were not visible previously for the political mandarins and gerrymanderers, then the results from the 2019 South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey (SABR) conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) should compel them to do so now.

The first point to note in the results is that the number of respondents who felt that their vote did not make a difference increased from 51% in 2017 to 58% in 2019. This is a significant jump of 7% of the total adult population eligible voters who are not just apathetic but have become increasingly despondent that even if they vote nothing will change. The survey, which is done every two years, becomes even more sombre when one reflects on the 2015 findings where 48% of those surveyed believed that their vote did not have any meaningful impact. The 10% increase from 2015 to 2019 is definitely cause for concern.

The second takeaway from the survey results is that despite voter apathy and despondency, this does not mean that the citizenry is apolitical. If anything engagement in local politics and community based issues are well over 50%. This indication suggests that people are actively involved in politics and are well aware of the critical issues underpinning to the governance of the country based on their everyday struggles.

The third and final matter of interest is that 71% of the respondents noted that relying on each other is more significant than on political elites. This admission of distrust in the governing elite is not new but it does hit home the stark reality that the citizenry are not to be seen as complacent, unsophisticated and out of touch in their assessment of the country’s governance deficit. Nor should political elites assume that ordinary South Africans are not watching their decadence and frivolous disregard that the very money that is being ‘stolen’ is actually that of the taxpayers. To be flippant, if it was not for ordinary South Africans paying taxes in the form of Value Added Tax (VAT), Pay As Your Earn (PAYE) and indirectly through increases in food and transport costs, where would the state generate the majority of the income it needs to pay civil servant salaries or even disperse social welfare grants? Just saying!

With the 2021 local government elections looming, the time has come for Party and State to be separated. It is clear that the state has become nothing more than an instrument of wealth accumulation for those without an ounce of conscience. It therefore cannot be business as usual for those who are mobilising their political capital to make the Party list so that they can fill their own coffers.  The corrosion of our democracy lies in the way the tiers of provincial and local government have become purveyors of corruption and a lack accountability.

Do we need 9 nine provinces and more than 250 municipalities that has not only become a drain to the national fiscus but also deepens the malaise of a rentier state?

It does not take much to figure out that the SARB survey results are only a tip of the iceberg in what is a crippling backlash against an unflinching moral imperviousness that has gripped the country. The corresponding reaction has been the menacing and violent protests that have become part of the daily lives of the destitute.

Perhaps the time has come to remind those in state power that it was the votes of ordinary people that got them to where they are and including their political networks.

Time to choose?

Waiting for President Ramaphosa to deliver his address to the nation on Saturday evening (15 August 2020) one could feel the agitated mood of the nation. Acknowledging the impact that ordinary South Africans had to endure as a result of five months of hard lockdown measures   (and without alcohol and cigarettes nogal) was extoled by the President. But this did little to appease or assuage the exasperated attitudes of some twitterati’s where #VoetsekANC trended with 55000 mentions. It seems that the proverbial gauntlet has been thrown down to choose between Party and State.

The signs have been there for a long time, but it took the COVID-19 pandemic to push home the ugly socio-economic truth and despair of what constitutes South Africa’s non- exceptionalism. With the credibility prism under serious duress, surely it cannot be business as usual for the Party and State. Talking about embarking on a ‘new normal’ must entail a critical appraisel of where the Party ends and the State begins.

Right now what we have is one vast amorphous amoeba that is growing frighteningly larger and seemingly becoming a power unto itself. One just has to reflect on the optics of the controversial figure of the former e-Thekwini mayor, Zandile Gumede, being sworn as member of the provincial legislature while being out bail for an alleged involvement in an irregular Durban Solid Waste tender contract. The point of the issue is not about ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The bigger issue at hand is that where an individual is caught in a legal cloud of uncertainty the more appropriate stance would be to let the legal framework takes its due course and not try and circumvent the rule of law. But more importantly, why test the patience and tenacity of the South African nation?


It is time Mr President to recalibrate the ‘New Dawn’ into a ‘People Centred Exceptionalism’. It is no coincidence that on the basis of your goodwill and moral intentions the ANC had managed to win 57% of the national elections in 2019. The time has come for that goodwill and ethical stance to become a reality. A reality that must not concealed by more institutional frameworks. Perhaps the time is nigh for making the hard choice of a COVID-19 separation of powers between Party and State. Your legacy would go down in history as one of breaking free from the shackles of the Party, and being emboldened by having at least a fair amount of support of the 10 million South Africans that voted for Party, notwithstanding the backing of the disaffected electorate who do not associate with any Political Party.

What is there to lose?

As future generations look back on this time in our democratic history, they will judge us on not what we said, but what we did to change their material circumstances and the exceptional leadership it took to do so. And it is with this in mind we should heed the words of Amilcar Cabral:

Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children…  Revolution of Guinea, written in 1965



Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Fellow the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA.

ddpThis article was first published in the Democracy Development Program (DDP) 24 August 2020


Related Posts

View all
  • By Published On: March 12th, 2024
  • By Published On: February 6th, 2024
  • By Published On: February 6th, 2024