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[OPINION] SA must forge new kind of citizen activism

The authoritative Financial Times dedicated its editorial to South Africa on Tuesday. Under the damning headline, ‘South Africa’s descent into despotism must stop’, it was a serious indictment on the ANC and its failure of leadership under President Zuma.

“Graft has infected all levels of the state. Thanks to the courageous efforts of civil society groups such as Corruption Watch and Save South Africa, the grubby nexus between the Gupta family business empire and President Jacob Zuma’s administration has come into sharper focus,” it said.

It neglected, of course, to mention our dogged and determined media who have systematically been exposing the rot within the state and the network of patronage that threatens our very future. The #GuptaLeaks provide in-depth insight into government corruption and how complicit many ministers and bureaucrats are in corrupt processes - from state-owned enterprises to Sars, it has become endemic. The Public Investment Corporation (PIC), already the subject of possible looting, seems the next definitive target of Zuma and his band of looters. For that is what they are.

The Financial Times suggests that if South Africa wants to save itself then it needs to look to Brazil and South Korea for lessons in how to doggedly persist and remove a president. Dilma Rousseff and Park Guen Hye felt the brunt of civic mobilisation to remove them and Brazil’s current President Michel Temer is facing corruption charges of his own.

The Financial Times is right, of course. The ANC is unable to fix itself because the divisions within the party are so deep and the rot will take decades to undo. Citizen action and civil society organisations are needed now more than ever to systematically hold government to account and, more importantly, to mobilise against state capture which threatens to engulf us all.

Somehow we need to get back to basics and reflect on how we got to this dismal point in our post-apartheid history.

Last week when former black consciousness activist Peter Jones, the friend of Steve Biko and fellow political prisoner, saw Zuma lay a wreath for Biko, he said he turned the television off. So revulsive was it to Jones.

Many of these stories of courage are forgotten and the degree to which our transition to democracy was brave and blood-soaked. How is it that we lost our way so badly and how can we draw on the work of the transition, those early halcyon days of democracy and the constitution-making process to map our mistakes and our progress? Now is a definitive time to be seeking to draw lessons from the past and to think about the future South Africa shaped by citizens who demand accountability from those in power. Ironically, this comes at a time when donor funding for civil society organisations focusing on South African governance issues has drastically diminished.

Despite that, the time for important, thoughtful conversations about the past, how it will inform the future and how institutional memory can be harnessed to bring about change in 2017 is fiercely urgent.

In these times of trenchant disagreement, cul de sac politics and dangerous men and women who hold power, one wonders what the role of an Idasa-type organisation might have been? Idasa would have turned 30 this year but closed its doors in April 2013.

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (Idasa) was founded in 1987 by Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, members of the opposition, in what became known as ‘the last white Parliament’.

Slabbert and Boraine, sensing the impasse of the complex time that was the late 1980s, understood the political moment better than most. Idasa sought to bring the ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ that prevailed in South Africa to an end by building dialogue between the Afrikaner establishment and the ANC in exile and within South Africa. Two of its most significant meetings were held in Dakar in 1987. That, in fact, signalled Idasa’s own beginnings and formed its deep roots.

The 61, mostly white, Afrikaners met with then banned ANC leaders in exile to talk through the possibility of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Africa. As Max Du Preez writes, “The Dakar initiative was followed up with several Idasa-organised meetings between the ANC in exile and business people, writers, students and other groups over the next three years. Talking had become fashionable.” It is 30 years since that first meeting in Dakar.

Soon thereafter it arranged meetings of writers, public intellectuals and artists from across the political spectrum at Victoria Falls. That convening power was always part of its organisational DNA. After 1994, Idasa’s strength lay in its ability to shift with the times and be nimble in the face of change and always inventive - from its HIV/Aids and governance work to its work on transparency and accountability, the Afrobarometer, local government and citizen activism, Idasa broke new and interesting ground.

For whatever its detractors have said about Idasa and its liberal roots over the years, its employment record will show that it provided a home for the most diverse, talented, politically astute research staff one could probably hope to find. From journalists to lawyers, anthropologists, economists and political scientists, Idasa was the unlikely home for us all.

What set Idasa apart was its ability to take on the thorny issues. There were probably two issues that marked the 2000s at Idasa - its work on the arms deal and money and politics. In 2000, Idasa recognised that the way South Africa handled the multi-billion rand arms deal investigation would be a litmus test for our democracy.

At that point Idasa was the only non-governmental organisation focusing on the work of the Public Accounts Committee and its battles with an executive trying to intervene and stop an investigation into the deal. Those were difficult days of political interference and Idasa’s intervention, small though it was, was an important moment. Its report entitled ‘Democracy and the arms deal’ and released in May 2003 outlined the impact the deal and the subsequent lack of accountability had on Parliament and other democratic institutions.

In 2005, after lobbying intensely for the regulation of private donations to political parties, Idasa moved to sue the ANC and four other opposition parties to reveal their sources of private funding in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Idasa lost the case as Judge Ben Griessel found, inter alia, that political parties were private bodies and therefore had no obligation to reveal their sources of funding.

Looking back over the past 12 years and the many examples of corrupt donations, one wonders whether our politics might now have looked slightly different had the decision gone the other way? But that court record remains as a reminder to the ANC and other political parties that the corrosive impact of money on the political system could only really be dealt with within the framework of regulation and a shift in political culture. The question is one of the biggest in South African politics today.

This past week the ad hoc committee on party funding released a draft Bill on party funding for public comment. The issue has come full circle from those early days of Idasa’s persistent advocacy and others effectively picked up the baton in later years.

It was this sort of groundbreaking work that made Idasa unique. Idasa attracted friends and enemies in equal measure and across the political divide. As staff we always thought this meant that we were doing something right. On any given day it walked the tightrope of being a ‘critical ally’ of government – praising where necessary and offering criticism where necessary.

There were lighter moments too. Then Minister of Public Service and Administration, the fierce Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, once started a speech on ethics in the public service in Parliament glaring up at us in the public gallery and declared, “Even Idasa would agree with me on this….’ This prompted one of our cheekier colleagues to send her a note once she had returned to her seat, signed “Even Idasa…” Fraser-Moleketi was forced to eke out a grin.

Looking back, there were peaks and troughs and mistakes were made. Yet 2008 and the global financial crisis meant a virtual drying up of donor agency money, especially to countries like South Africa. Donors then and still largely now see South Africa’s challenges as self-inflicted wounds which they believe we have the wherewithal to resolve ourselves. Their interventions have been far narrower in recent years and less focused on dealing with the arc of the transition, how we got here and preserving crucial institutional memory of those within civil society who worked closely on trying to build effective democratic institutions, but also on issues of government ethics and the slow work of building a broader culture of transparency.

There are reasons why Parliament is unable to hold the executive to account effectively and that emasculation of institutions had its roots in the arms deal. The 2008 financial crisis brought with it a new set of funding challenges that Idasa, for all its creativity and inventiveness, could not stave off.

It has doubtless left a void that must be filled by the active citizens and progressive donors who remain committed to the values of transformative constitutionalism. South Africa needs to forge a new kind of citizen activism if we are to truly save ourselves from the corrupt who stand at the gates. Those civil society organisations fighting the proverbial good fight must be supported without reservation.

Somehow, however, we also need to make space for some of that original ‘Idasa-type’ work which convened groups across different spheres of society to deal with complex problems through dialogue. Such deep reflection on citizenship and what it demands of us, even in the midst of the fierce urgency of now, seems more necessary than ever. For we are learning the hard way that democracy is a slow, obstacle-ridden marathon and not a sprint - and its gains can be very easily lost.

Judith February headed Idasa’s Political Information and Monitoring Service between 2003 and 2012. On 30 September 2017 Idasa staff will again regroup in Pretoria and look back at the different phases of its 26 years. For more information contact Paul Graham