Settling for one out of three outcomes landed us in this mess
Africa’s wisdom is symbolised by the design and use of the three-legged pot as this type of structure is the most stable; ask any connoisseur of potjie kos. Our dismal performance as a constitutional democracy, founded on human rights, results from our failure to base our transition to democracy on three legs, in the form of political, emotional and socioeconomic settlements.
To extend the metaphor, the increasing social instability and tensions apparent in our society reflect the cost of cooking with a one-legged pot – it is unstable and cannot contain enough food for all citizens.
We need to complement the political compact sealed in 1994 and celebrated worldwide by acting on the commitment we made in the preamble of our Constitution, in the name of “We the People”, to heal the divisions of the past; establish a democratic, open society in which everyone is equal before the law; address the quality of life of all citizens to free up everyone’s potential; and take our place as a sovereign state in the community of nations.
Impunity in the public service – as exemplified by the brazen acts of incompetence and corruption that run riot at state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as the Passenger Rail Agency of SA, PetroSA and the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa), along with state capture and other crimes that go unpunished – reflect a mind-set of people who are yet to be liberated from being subjects of an oppressive regime to becoming effective shapers of our constitutional democracy.
Our failure to heal the wounds of our ugly past has been used by some elites to justify the continuation of a culture of “me, myself and I” in civil society, as well as the private and public sectors. The ANC government, which continually boasts of its commitment to the poor, appears to be in no hurry to lift all citizens out of poverty. It has singularly failed to enhance the quality of education and health services to free up the potential of all citizens and, in so doing, enable them to become contributors to national prosperity.
The Sassa case demonstrates how social grant recipients have been made captives of abusive financial practices by the department of social development’s preferred service provider, Cash Paymaster Services. The same behaviour is evident in the conduct of public officials and board members of most SOEs. There is a systematic hollowing-out of public assets for the benefit of politically connected individuals and officials.
Our wobbly one-legged potjie also leaves those citizens enjoying historic privileges off the hook. Many feel little empathy for those who continue to endure grinding poverty. They blame those living in poverty for their predicament – “they have too many children”; “they feel too entitled to all the free services from the state”; and “they are not hard-working enough” are common refrains. There is little acknowledgement of the compounded benefits of multi-generational education and training, as well as capital accumulation that they continue to enjoy.
Some even claim that they cannot be held responsible because they were born after apartheid.
Emotional settlement, the second leg of our potjie, needs to be effected through sensitively facilitated dialogues. This would help all citizens to acknowledge the effect of our ugly past on those who benefited from it as well as those who were exploited.
Both sides have been wounded and have carried those scars into our democratic dispensation. The human rights values embodied in our Constitution cannot flourish in the midst of a society hobbled by wounds. We are yet to see one another as unself-consciously fellow South Africans.
Political elites in our current dispensation also feel entitled to the fruits of corruption, nepotism and state capture. In the absence of the second and third leg of the potjie to transform our nation into one that advocates for social justice, they help themselves to our national assets.
Our failure to restructure the economy and make it more inclusive has left it wide open to individual elites to enrich themselves, even at the cost of their indigent fellow citizens.
The propaganda appropriated by the ANC, which claims to be our sole liberator from apartheid and the only trusted guarantor against a return to apartheid rule, has undermined poor people’s ability to hold them accountable. Many poor people believe that voting the ANC out of power will bring back apartheid. Who can forget Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s November 2013 statement, made while campaigning for the 2014 election, that voting for the DA “will bring back the boers”?
It is not surprising that citizens’ rage at being disrespected, lied to and condemned to a multigenerational life of poverty and a marginal existence on the periphery of our cities and metros, is often turned inwards, leading to domestic, community and public violence.
What is to be done? We need to go back to the commitments we made in the preamble of our Constitution. We need to strengthen the foundations of our democracy by complementing our political settlement with emotional and socioeconomic settlements. We need to reimagine South Africa anew and recommit to building the country of our dreams.
We need to get our schools to embed civic education in their life orientation curriculums to prepare young people to become informed, responsible citizens. This would also boost their self-confidence and their hope in a future that they can shape.
This could go a long way towards helping them make good life choices, leading to reductions in substance abuse, teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
We also need to encourage faith-based organisations to practise their healing ministries in our wounded society. Parents, teachers and community leaders are often hopeless and feel helpless in the face of major domestic and social conflict. Emotional settlement dialogues in our churches, mosques, synagogues and community halls are essential to help us find our way back to feeling optimistic for a future we can shape.
Our socioeconomic system has been designed to perpetuate poverty and inequality. Black economic empowerment has failed dismally to redress past inequities. Our economy needs a broader base of educated, skilled and highly motivated people as entrepreneurs, professionals, service providers and customers to enhance sustainable economic development.
We cannot have a vibrant economy that relies on only 20% of the population as active contributors. The dead weight of those condemned to social welfare is at the heart of our sluggish economy. Only proud, contributing citizens can guarantee a sustainable, democratic, accountable, prosperous and socially just system.
Human Rights Day is an opportunity for us to recommit to completing our unfinished transformation into a country practising its human rights value system, with ubuntu as the guiding light of all social relationships.
Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA