The events of the past several days and weeks that gripped the country was surreal. Post reflection commentaries were caught in divisive interpretations in explaining how we arrived at this inflection point. Trying to label it as an insurrection, attempted coup, or an uprising of the Precariat became competing narratives in providing some rationale thought in understanding and making sense of what were the push and pull factors that informed this unprecedented moment in South Africa’s democratic history.
Social media platforms and mainstream newspapers were ablaze with responses that provoked emotionally charged reactions. The mood of the country was one of shock, despair but also anger that saw communities gutted and pitted against each other. Our claim to fame through Mandela no longer held true. The inevitable had happened: the Party’s own infamy, notwithstanding the country’s moral credentials had upended the principles and values espoused by its prodigal son.
South Africa is no longer (if it ever was) the proverbial Rainbow Nation that Mandela envisaged. We had reached the point of no return with the state of the nation spiraling out of control while the fate of the nation hung in the balance. The preceding warnings that the caustic relationship between the Party and State was antithetical came to pass. And so it is the unthinkable that we see around us now that soberly conveys that the country cannot return to a business as usual approach.
With this in mind, the prevailing question is: Should we dare to invent the Future of South Africa based on Thomas Sankara’s famous quote. If so what should we dare to invent and how? If not then should we assume that the future remains hopeless?
Perhaps there is a cautious optimism to be had in assuming that it cannot get any worse than this. Yet in trying to find that enthusiasm three fundamental conditions need to be met.
Fundamental Condition 1: A Baptism of fire for the Ruling Party
As we review the sustainability of our democratic conditions, it will naïve to assume that what has transpired is merely a bump in the road. It cannot be that both the ruling party, provincial and national leadership as well as the cabinet can escape the consequences with platitudes and rhetoric. It is precisely that blasé attitude in assuming that placating nation with purposeless statements is what contributed and deepened the lack of confidence and trust deficit in our body politic.
More than that the clumsy communication regarding how the situation was allowed to generate, ventilate and manifest into a harrowing state of affairs does not instill conviction into whether the democratic identity of the country is consolidating on the path of meritocracy.
As much as we try to comprehend what led us to this moment, it is also time for an honest appraisal of the system that evolved since the 1994 political transition. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and be blind to the exigencies that has been waiting to erupt like a pressure cooker. Nor can the ruling party reassure the nation that it has everything under control. Unfortunately the Party has to make some hard choices if it wants to evolve into that modernized Party that truly represents the South African citizenry. No more excuses for the parlous internal governance conditions and hiding behind historical narratives that are just by products of hanging on to a waning nostalgic greatness.
What the Party does now is going to indelibly determine its future into whether it remains the political movement it claims to be and an option of choice at the polls in the short, medium and long term. The Party has to decide whether it wants to continue to allow rogue and undesirable elements join its ranks and continue to weaken its future trajectories.
The point of departure for the Party is that the South African public is not going to allow itself to continually become the casualty of its inability to resolve its internal crises. The time has come for the Party to be ‘woke’ if wants to remain relevant and a key actor in shaping the governance architecture of the country.
Fundamental 2: A New Social Contract: Community Democracy
When the citizenry feels abandoned, it is at that point that democracy enters the realm of uncertainty. It is also at that point that vulnerability, complexity and ambiguity sets in. What is needed is a new social contract that is built on not only revising the way the electoral model is designed but one that strengthens community democracy.
It cannot be that the way we vote and the democratic model is defined by transactional costs. The fact of the matter is that what we have a democracy that at times errs on being commercially driven than substantively about lives and livelihoods.
Twenty-seven years on in this democratic dispensation it is hard to ignore the contrarian nature of where we are. The time has come for there to be a more pragmatic understanding of our relationship to political parties and their notion of representing the interests of the electorate. If there was a significant takeaway to be had in all of the madness that took place that is the social contract between the state and citizens can no longer be defined along the lines of a winner take all electoral order.
The one stark reality is that communities do not need to be led on perceptions of how they are going to be represented or based on playing on their fears and insecurities of interests. If anything the lesson that we learnt is that we have the ability to be resilient when we have to be irrespective of political movements who use the people as cannon fodder.
Perhaps we now have to start thinking more realistically of how we adapt to changes of a community-based democracy where the notion of a bottom up framework of a democratic system offers more value than this hierarchical top down approach. What we have witnessed is a political establishment, whether the ruling party or opposition parties, that is not in touch with the people.
Fundamental 3: Leave the exceptionalism at the Door
The time has come for South Africa to stop assuming that it is an exceptional democracy. The shelf life of looking backwards to the 1994 negotiated settlement has reached its expiry date. It is little wonder that for all the intents and purposes of being consultative and convening as many as commissions and inquiries to make sure that this democracy is as inclusive as possible, the country still faced its gravest risk.
How many more commissions with hefty price tags the South African public must endure? Lets be candid: by now we know what the crises precisely entails.
The fact of the matter is that our exceptionalism has never gone beyond our borders. If anything, the economic spillover effects is not only a serious blight on the country’s socio-economic recovery, it has also been felt with disruptions to regional value chains as well as with investors who use our port and overland networks as a freight corridor to move goods. This was severely constrained.
The question now is whether this ambiguous notion of ‘South Africa’s gateway status ‘into Southern Africa and beyond has been compromised not only for attracting investment into the country but also for the country’s business sector who may bypass our borders and value chains.
But more than that how does South Africa assume leadership roles in continental institutions on peace, security and development and persuade others to do the right thing when it has not achieved similar objectives in its own political and economic transformation.
Can South Africa with any level of strategic purpose and value act as a mediator in upholding the governance barometer in Africa without having to put its tail between its legs when the going gets tough?
There is a lot that we have to consider in what we want to invent as the future of South Africa. It is not going easy but as someone remarked on one of the social media platforms that:
1000 years from now when archaeologists discover fossils in South Africa they will find piles of commission reports, task team documents, and master plans but no evidence of implementation.
Effective leadership, being bold with non-performing ministers and not being afraid to overhaul the bureaucracy when they remain unresponsive to implementation programmes must accompany the three fundamentals highlighted above in daring to invent the future. Scrambling after the fact is not a government in control. But rather a government that is confused and in tatters.
If there is anything that future generations will heed from these bleak times is that they are not going to be as patient and compliant nor be fooled by elites that blatantly manipulate them for selfish interests.
Ms. Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal.
This article was first published in the Democracy Development Program (DDP) 26 July 2021. https://ddp.org.za/blog/2021/07/26/should-we-dare-invent-the-future/