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[OPINION] SA’s long journey to transition

Transition: ‘the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.’

The word has an effortless ring to it, as if a country can simply move from one state of being to another and that all the centuries of conflict can simply vanish at the stroke of a pen.

Would that it were that easy.

Despite it all, many still seem awed by South Africa’s transition, impressed by our ability to have moved from a hurtful past to a common future. The South Africans present, so jaded by 24 years of democracy, were struck again by the mistakes we have made and by how very ordinary and, at times tawdry, our leaders have become. The Ramaphosa Presidency seemingly brings with it a ‘new dawn’ yet it drags the detritus of the Zuma Years with it. The unfinished business of apartheid comes back to haunt us daily, whether in acrimonious, often damagingly ahistorical debates about land or other past injustices. Our democratic state is equally laid bare for its neglect, brutality and corruption. Marikana and Life Esidimeni are but two examples of this. Sadly, there are many, many more.

But for many, South Africa still represents an ideal, with a Constitution which incorporates socio-economic rights and a court system which, though imperfect, is capable of holding the most powerful to account. We have seen this again and again. Our courts have held former President Zuma to account in the Nkandla matter and have not held back in making findings against government departments and ministers. Most recently, Judge Tuchten of the Pretoria High Court found that Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba had “deliberately told untruths under oath”.
So, sometimes democratic institutions become inconvenient for those in power.

We are only just seeing clearly how the Zuma Years denuded many of our institutions. This past week the compromised Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane appeared before Parliament in relation to her report on corruption in the Estina dairy farm project. She skirted every question that sought to get to the heart of state capture. In this week too the captured and compromised National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams told Parliament that there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute the Guptas. He seems intent on furthering tarnishing the reputation of the NPA.

Former President Zuma has departed the scene but the damage will take years to undo. For within all these institutions captured individuals lurk. Institutions are only as strong as the men and women of integrity who populate them.

Despite our progressive Constitution, we have also learnt that rights are still only won through struggle, even in a democratic society. Hindsight is 20/20 vision and often pointless, but if we had to do it all again, what might we have done differently as we sought to build a just and equitable society based on the rule of law?

It’s still all about the economy. South Africa's youth unemployment sits at 52%. A staggering figure, while unemployment, in general, is at 26.7%. A crisis by anyone’s definition.

Some now suggest an ‘economic Codesa’ to deal with unemployment, poverty and inequality, our stubborn triple challenge. Yet the quotient of trust needed for such a discussion seems to be sorely lacking amongst our social partners; government, business and labour. In his Sona, the president recommitted himself to facilitating a new social compact. That will take work.

And yet, we dare not say it is too late to try.

So, Lesson One of the early years would have been to try to fix the economy in some way and create sufficient trust between the economic players based on an understanding that a fair wage, creating a proper skills base, artisanships and entrepreneurship should be supported. Importantly, too, that some form of shared sacrifice would be necessary to deal with the ravages of the past.

Clearly, post-apartheid South Africa's greatest failure has been education despite the fact that we have spent more on education as a percentage of GDP than in any other area. Too many curriculum changes, the loss of experienced teachers and an insufficient embedding of the culture of learning, some errant teachers and weak administration have hampered our ability to educate the next generation for a different kind of economic reality. Too many South African children simply drop out of school before reaching matric and the annual ‘puff’ surrounding the matric pass rate is just that - puff when only a smidgen of those who passed are able to reach university. It is nothing short of tragic. In a post-1994 country based on a flawed notion of empowerment, education has often taken the back seat in a national discourse that prizes crass wealth accumulation above the emancipatory power of a decent education. This will continue to cost us dearly and there are no quick fixes. Lesson Two is therefore a sobering one.

And then Lesson Three might be that our trust deficit was papered over by the ‘rainbow discourse’ of 1994 and our Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) never allowed us to fully deal with the past. ‘The past’ lies between us in every debate about race and class, in every disagreement about structural inequality and an economy built on cheap labour. Too many victims’ questions remain unanswered while the perpetrators walk amongst us. Accountability thus becomes more complex in a land of unfinished business.

As Antjie Krog says so eloquently in the epic Country of grief and grace,

but if the old is not guilty

does not confess

then of course the new can also not be guilty

nor be held accountable

if it repeats the old

(things may then continue as before

but in a different shade)

And so ‘transition’ is indeed a ‘process’, ongoing, difficult, messy and uncomfortable. And despite the sacrifice and sheer joy of 1994, we have a very long way to travel to arrive at ‘another state or condition’ as envisaged in the Constitution.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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