Judith February: Remaking SA society

There is an odd camaraderie amongst South Africans when gathered abroad. And so it was recently when South African academics and activists gathered at St Antony's college in Oxford under the banner of '20 years of democracy'.

Like South Africa itself the conference was a mixed bag; the good, the bad and the ugly. Those attending from the Presidency insisted on 'the good story to tell' and nuance and balance when telling South Africa's story twenty years on.

Just about every part of South African life was dissected at the conference, from macroeconomics, the historical trajectory that led to our 1994 negotiated settlement, to socio-economic rights and Constitutionalism.

If there was a criticism to be levelled at the conference it was probably that it lacked a comparative component able to fully place South Africa's post-apartheid development in a global historical context. It therefore unwittingly lent itself to that old chestnut of South Africa's so-called 'exceptionalism'; that we are somehow different to the rest of Africa. Of course, our subsequent inability to hold our leaders to account sufficiently and deal with poverty and inequality in more effective ways has shown just how very ordinary we are.

Sitting in genteel Oxford mulling over our past (what could we have done differently?) and our future (what choices stare us in the face?), provided the opportunity to hear deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe make one of his last international speeches in a packed academic hall. Motlanthe was intellectually engaging, yet as enigmatic as ever.

Looking back on the past 20 years, he highlighted three areas which led to our successful transition, namely, a consensus in the political community, a sense of 'shared values' and the 'Mandela phenomenon' which he described as being about more than myth but rather a deep commitment to democratic rules and procedures and standards of fairness. Yet, our current state, as Motlanthe set out, was marked by a need to deal with the 'weak point' of corruption, social inequity and embedding democratic processes. How do we create spaces for social dialogue?

Motlanthe, more than anyone, would know how sorely these spaces are needed given his attempts to settle the ongoing platinum mining strike.

Inequality, rather than poverty, remains one of our greatest challenges. If the best seller Capital in the 21st century by Thomas Pikkety is anything to go by, inequality is now being recognised as the major global challenge without any quick fixes.

Responding to questions put to him about the remaking of our society, Motlanthe's comments about a 'confidence in power' were possibly the most interesting. As each generation has its own historical mission, so our new generation needed to display resilience and, equally, the ANC in government a sense of confidence to lead without feeling threatened. It was a particularly perspicacious point given the lack of confidence the ANC often shows in the face of criticism and despite its overwhelming electoral majority.

The Public Protector had barely released her report into Nkandla when the ANC 'attack dogs' were out to protect and defend Jacob Zuma and undermine the Public Protector. 'White man's lies', shouted Blade Nzimande, while others blamed the media.

Similarly, the SABC has taken it upon itself to feed into the insecurity narrative and has shown its partisanship by twice banning a DA election advertisement on the spurious grounds that the advertisement would 'incite electoral violence'. So the acts of insecurity permeate even our public institutions when leadership within those institutions is pandering or absent.

On Nkandla, surely a confident ruling party would have admitted that such waste and excess was wrong and made amends to a weary public instead of filibustering a Parliamentary committee?

Motlanthe spoke at length about the corrosion of values, quite similarly to his secretary-general's report at the ANC conference in Polokwane in 2007. Already in 2005, he had outlined the dangers of incumbency and the 'cancer of corruption' eating away at the party.

As Motlanthe picked his way carefully through the questions, one could not help but feel empathy for this essentially decent man who had been discarded by a brutal political process. Of course, the debate will forever be whether he wanted the Presidency enough to take on Jacob Zuma, the ultimate street fighter.

So as we contemplate the future post-election day, we would do well to keep Motlanthe's questions in mind and think afresh about the remaking of our society. President Zuma and his cabinet will again take their oaths of office and swear allegiance to the Constitution. It is our task to hold them to their oath. That requires a new struggle and, leaving Oxford, we knew that despite what Motlanthe labelled South Africa's creative power, the road ahead would be a difficult one.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).