South Africa: Civil war or civil peace?
We’re at the crossroads yet again and the onus is on our leadership to make wise choices and shun the path that leads to destruction
FELLOW South Africans, we have fought a brave struggle, we have won a bitter-sweet freedom and we are slowly building a nation.
Our nation is a work in progress and like the many nations which make up this world of ours, there comes a time when its people reach a crossroads and have to make choices.
Many nations have been at that crossroads and have had to make difficult choices. Some have made wise choices and continue to reap the benefits, while others have made poor choices that have led to death and destruction.
We are today standing at that crossroads and this historic moment in our long nation-building journey demands of us that we make choices.
All of us, black and white, rich and poor, young and old, male and female, Christian, Muslim, Jew and Hindu, capitalist and communists, have to consciously make choices that will determine the country we will continue to live in. Or the country many will be forced to flee from.
Today we have a choice to make between civil war or civil peace!
This will not be the first time that we will be standing on the precipice of civil war. We were fast edging towards civil war in the late 1980s and nobody was certain who was going to win that war, but what was certain was that millions were going to be killed.
Then-president FW de Klerk had a choice: to use his government’s military and security apparatus to go to war against the liberation forces or to enter into dialogue. He chose dialogue. Nelson Mandela, despite growing internal resistance and a determination among his followers to engage the security forces of the apartheid regime, made the choice to lead his followers into dialogue.
Both these leaders went against vast numbers of their followers who at the time preferred to continue with the war. Their choice led us out of a civil war.
My colleagues and I at Accord (African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes) have spent the past 25 years being first-hand witnesses to the death and destruction of civil war in Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Sudan.
We have seen similar bloody civil wars in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Most of the leaders who lead their people into civil wars are generally driven by narrow sectarian interests. What they have in common is their ability to convince and sometimes manipulate their followers. They abandon their moral compass and ability to think long-term.
They become selfish to the point of being irrational and they drag their people into war and conflict that generally lasts for over 20 years.
Imagine your lives disrupted for the next 20 years. Imagine you and your families without jobs, becoming refugees from your country, fleeing over borders with very few possessions and living in squalid conditions in other countries.
The question we have to ask ourselves today is whether a civil war is possible in South Africa.
Can we destroy this beautiful country that we have built?
From my experiences both in South Africa and globally, I unfortunately have to say that a civil war is not only possible in South Africa, it is highly possible.
Now let me say equally emphatically, while time is running out rapidly, we – all of us, not just the government – have the ability, the resources and the intellect to ensure that we don’t go down that path.
The question is whether we have the political will, the commitment, the sense of oneness as a nation, the resilience, the honesty and integrity, and most of all the compassion and empathy to come together as a nation and work hard and selflessly with utmost urgency to take the path of civil peace.
The proverbial storm is approaching and dark clouds are gathering rapidly.
Twenty-three years after our first democratic elections, inequality has grown, unemployment has also grown and so too has poverty, despite its alleviation through social grants.
Our economy is either not growing or growing very slowly. Every single day people are moving rapidly into our urban areas with no prospect of employment, placing huge pressure on the government to deliver services from education, housing and sanitation to water.
However, service delivery has declined, corruption is fast becoming endemic, race relations are deteriorating, ethnicity is rearing its ugly head and political competition has turned into political intolerance. Crime is visibly threatening and the public perception is one of declining law and order.
Here lie the seeds for civil war. Our fault lines are many – and there are many among us who recklessly, intentionally or selfishly plant these seeds for their narrow interests.
They go on to nurture them and water them with their hateful rhetoric, oblivious to the fact, or irresponsibly alive to the fact, that setting a match to this cocktail of fault-lines will unleash a war nobody will be able to control. History is replete with these sad stories and we should not be added to this list.
What can be done to reverse this grave trend and ensure that we continue on a path to civil peace and not deteriorate towards the path to civil war?
Our most urgent task must be to provide a secure life for those who don’t yet have this security. This task cannot be achieved overnight. Successive governments since 1994 have made huge progress in tackling the imbalances of the past and some among us have benefited.
However, these efforts were not enough.
In 1994 we had about 40 million people in our country and about 50% of that number was urbanised. Today we have 55 million people and about 64% of those people are urbanised, and nearly 36% of our population is unemployed.
Any politician who stands up to get your vote and promises to solve this problem in the next five years will be misleading you, either because they know that you do not know what the state of our nation is, or, worse still, because they do not know what the state of our nation is.
This huge challenge is going to take a concerted effort by all of us over the next 20 to 40 years. And we have to start today.
To avoid the fast-approaching storm, our nation needs a new social compact between all the sectors of our society – the political parties and politicians, the government, the trade unions, the private sector, the media, the religious sector, civil society and the academics.
We need astute political leaders who are alive to the demands of the time and their complexity.
We need leaders who are visionary, who have long-term plans and the ability to bring a sense of urgency and discipline throughout our society so that those plans can be implemented professionally, efficiently and effectively.
Our nation needs strong political parties and confident political leadership. The boardrooms of cabinet and Parliament must be turned into war rooms against poverty, unemployment and inequality and not battle grounds for narrow party political or factional interests.
We need an effective public service. We have many well-meaning public servants who are hard-working and who operate professionally and in the best interests of the public at large.
Then there are those who fail to grasp the public or servant part of public servant.
It is also in the public service, among other sectors of our society today where the cancer of corruption is spreading.
Let me say to the thousands of public servants that when you do not perform your tasks, when you engage in corruption and when the millions of our people take to the streets to protest, that protest over time will lead to civil war -and you and your families will also be counted among the victims.
Now, let me turn to the private sector. You are the drivers of economic growth and employment in our country. Alongside government, you have the biggest responsibility to deliver us out of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
We need the private sector to become active partners in the transformation agenda of our country and not collude in the feeding frenzy of corruption that is eating away at the fabric of our society.
Your business must not be only about profit for yourselves and value for your shareholder – your biggest shareholder must be the public at large because without them you can generate no value for yourselves or your shareholder.
The rest of us in civil society – the media, the academic community, the religious sector and the trade unions – all have to play a role in ensuring that we secure our hard-won democracy.
We have many challenges but we also have much to be grateful for. We still have a vibrant democracy, the three arms of our government – the legislature, the administration and the judiciary – still have relative independence from each other and we need to guard that jealously.
We still have a free media and our right to march and protest is still upheld.
We have a country with amazing natural beauty. We have physical infrastructure that is the envy of many around the world. Our roads, airports and ports are all worldclass. We have financial and commercial sectors that rival the best in the world.
We have come a long way; we have walked too long a road; we lost too many patriots. Twenty-three years later, we owe it to them and the Arch (Desmond Tutu) and all his peers, to make sure that the colours of the Arch’s rainbow get brighter; that we correct our moral compass and stop those who only see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
We need to make sure that the rainbow of hope and prosperity does not only stretch from Table Mountain to the Drakensberg; that it does not rise only among the Jacaranda of Pretoria and fall in the bosom of the amazing Blyde River Canyon.
The rainbow of hope and prosperity must also spread from Constantia to Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain; from Umhlanga to KwaMashu and Phoenix, and from Sandton to Soweto.
It is only when the rainbow of hope and prosperity touches each and every South African that we shall all be secure, free and enjoy civil peace.
●Gounden is executive director of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). This is an edited version of the 7th Annual International Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture delivered by him earlier this week
Nelson Mandela, left, and then-deputy president FW de Klerk chat outside Parliament after the approval of South Africa’s new constitution in 1996. Both men had important choices to make during the transition to democracy, says Gounden.