Calling all active citizens
We must forge a new humanism and Africanism that race, ethnicity and national boundaries we inherited from colonialism
The struggle for democracy in South Africa was waged fiercely across a number of fronts – mass mobilisation, the underground, the military and the international arena. Just as fiercely as the struggle to liberate the majority was waged, there was a bitter struggle against it by the minority using every aspect of state power, with a heavy reliance on repression and the military. Neither side scored an overwhelming and continuous victory on the “battlefield”, and hence the struggle concluded in a negotiated settlement.
The most significant part of the settlement is contained in our Constitution, and it is in understanding its content that we must give attention to the building of a nation out of an apartheid past, where the emphasis was on division by race, gender, language, tribe, class and every conceivable other division that could be conjured up.
We understood then, as we still do, that political power is the means to the creation of an inclusive nationhood, and not an end in itself. This is a matter that engaged African and South African thinkers.
Among these thinkers was Professor Jakes Gerwel, who set the challenge thus: “We must use the totality of our abundant resources, including our cultural and artistic resources, as building blocks for a new vision of Africa, one that cultivates the best traditions of what and who we are. To do so, we will need to forge a new humanism and Africanism that transcends race, ethnicity and national boundaries we inherited from colonialism.”
Our Constitution requires that we:
Recognise the injustices of our past; Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. More importantly, however, it requires that we use political power to correct that path and commit to:
Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
Much of the commentary of the present deals with the continuation and re-emergence of crude racism, gender discrimination and resurgent tribalism; the constant issues raised in respect of the breakdown of the rule of law and the vulnerability of victims of criminality about the absence of protection; the frustration of the poor, who feel excluded and undermined by poverty, unemployment and inequality; and the horror that we still witness periodically of xenophobic attacks on fellow Africans.
Nineteen years after the adoption of the Constitution and 21 years since our first democratic elections, we have to question whether this spirit continues to shape and guide us as Africans and South Africans.
Have we healed the divisions of the past, or have they simply been buried so deep in our subconsciousness, escaping from time to time in inexplicable forms of violence, such as attacks on foreigners or on each other? And how do we explain this violence? Do we really fear those from other nations, or are there other, more credible, explanations? Do we know who we are as a people? How can it be that young black people born after democracy continue to feel alienated in their own country?
As a country, we have made a great deal of progress since 1994. Aside from the obvious changes to institutions and legislation, the economy has grown at a steady pace, resulting in rising incomes and employment; access to basic services such as education, health, housing, water and sanitation has been extended to all citizens; democratic electoral systems being established; and a rights-based culture promoted.
There is a general acknowledgment, however, that we have not made sufficient progress to address the long-term legacy of apartheid despite the adoption of sound policies. While poverty levels dropped during the period of rapid economic growth, the labour incomes of the poorest 40% dropped with the expansion of social grants, accounting for increases in household income.
Despite improvements in terms of access to education and retention, the quality of education for the majority of black learners remains poor, affecting employment and earnings mobility. Our criminal justice system remains skewed to favour the wealthy.
A simplistic approach to this would be to dismiss these issues as the realities of the class system true of most democracies, but the distinct race dimension to these experiences cannot be ignored. We find that, despite policies designed to improve the lives of the poor, we have not changed the outlook of many of our citizens.
Creating a socially cohesive society requires a concerted approach by all South Africans.
The National Development Plan emphasises the importance of active citizenry and leadership to identify incidents of injustice and to hold government to account. To ensure the quality of delivery, this type of accountability mechanism works best when everyone, including the wealthy, depends on the same services to ensure the quality of delivery.
The participatory governance mechanism adopted for local government after 1994 is designed to ensure the participation of citizens to enhance delivery rather than impede it. This form of active citizenry requires leadership – beyond the political, at all levels – that places citizens at the centre of development, where they can act as agents of change. The contract to build such a cohesive society must be based on trust – trust in the credibility and equal commitment of all participants, trust that leaders will uphold the constitutional values of our democracy and trust that trade-offs are designed to address injustices.
In truth, our lived experience suggests that we have not listened to the pleadings of the best among us, as in Gerwel’s plea that “we will need to forge a new humanism and Africanism that transcends race, ethnicity and national boundaries we inherited from colonialism”.
This is the discussion we can no longer defer. The Jakes Gerwel Foundation has decided to open this discussion. It is important, but is complex because it offers no simple answers, will not be solved by merely assigning blame to others and demands determined, organised and measurable actions by all of us.
The Jakes Gerwel Memorial Lecture that was delivered by Dr Carlos Lopes at the University of the Western Cape on Tuesday helped to open this debate. Manuel retired from active politics last year. He was the chairperson of the National Planning Commission and the
longest-service finance minister in SA
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