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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Why South Africans need to take The Long View

"The level of corruption in this country has reached completely unacceptable proportions. We have to do something about it.... We have to build our country to be a better country. We have to do it ourselves; nobody would do it for us,” Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo said recently.

How right he is. A glance at the ANC election list shows us that we can definitely not rely on the governing ANC to clean itself up - or any other political party for that matter.

As South Africans, we do tend to navel-gaze, be preoccupied with our plight and expect all our challenges to be solved immediately.

Yet, the reality is that our constitutional democracy is bruised and battered but still standing after the ‘9 wasted years’. We thus need to take The Long View. This does not come easily in a world in need of quick fixes and where 24-hour social media demands immediate solutions.

Yet that is where we are at the moment.

When Ramaphosa took office he promised a 'New Dawn'. Of course, even he knew that this was going to be an uphill battle. Ramaphosa has inherited a veritable 'hot mess'.

That includes the capture of many of our democratic institutions, bankrupt state-owned enterprises and state coffers that are now virtually bare.

And so, no matter how many times Ramaphosa summons our better angels and encourages us to say 'Thuma mina!', we all knew it would be a tough ask to rebuild our country’s economy and the social compact which is dangerously fraying at the seams.

Democracy is only ever as strong as the people who populate democratic institutions and the ability of those individuals who lead them to adhere to constitutional norms and values - and our willingness to defend the Constitution.

Given the challenges of the present, where exactly should our focus lie in building a post-Zuma democracy? A democracy in which we enable citizens ‘to build popular, accountable and sustainable self-government’ and ‘enjoy equality with each other in governance processes’.

Our society, now more than ever, is in need of critical voices on every front as it continues the battle to find its soul.

How do we forge a society in which we can talk honestly about race, class and other fault-lines? We are in many ways finding our collective voice again. Where should our focus lie in building this democracy?

- Education: A recent report on the state of education by the IMF shows South Africa is sorely lacking in this crucial area. Our teaching outcomes are poor especially in relation to mathematics and the system has a lack of accountability, to name but a few shortcomings. This should come as no surprise even though a substantial chunk of GDP is spent on education. Clearly, post-apartheid South Africa's greatest failure has been education despite the fact that we have spent more on education as a proportion of GDP than on any other area. Too many curriculum changes, errant teachers and the loss of experienced ones, weak administration and an insufficient embedding of the culture of learning, have hampered our ability to educate the next generation for the economic realities of today and tomorrow.

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 28% of those who passed are able to reach university. Education is a means of lifting people out of poverty and providing a ‘way out’ of desperate situations. 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. Education and knowledge are the cornerstones of any society seeking to build a culture of democracy; we need teachers in classrooms, better infrastructure, proper leadership/principals who can lead and corruption dealt with - Sadtu buying posts still remains unresolved. But we also need to focus on enhancing skills, vocational training, FET colleges and empowering girls to enter university and focus on language, maths and science. The diagnosis has been done – but we need the will to make this happen.

- Constitutional education: What is the Constitution? What is its purpose? How does it provide the checks and balances on power and give rise to a culture of accountability on top of the fine words and institutions? How did we get here? And whose rights are protected - in Chapter 2 of the Constitution - what does it mean to say ‘socio-economic rights are justiciable?’ And what were the cases brought before the court which protected the rights of the most vulnerable in our society?

- The economy: The economy must be fixed. We need to create sufficient trust between the economic players based on an understanding that a fair wage, a proper skills base, artisanships and entrepreneurship should be supported. Some form of shared sacrifice is necessary to deal with the ravages of the past. According to the World Bank report released in April 2018, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.

In an environment in which Ramaphosa has to focus on key issues of corruption and holding the state together, retaining a focus on the ‘big picture’ is crucial - as is keeping the lights on. Literally. Ramaphosa launched the government’s ‘YES’ (Youth Employment Service) programme aimed at addressing youth unemployment and providing youth with some level of skills. The move recognises that skills development and encouraging and supporting entrepreneurship are crucial if the government is to make even the slightest dent in the unemployment rate. For all this to happen, the relationship between government, business and labour will need to strengthen.

- Connecting the dots via a free and independent media: Understanding corruption, what it means and how it links to people’s lives – these are all important aspects of aspects of active citizenship. For instance, how does a tender awarded to a politician or one of his or her family manifest in the collapse of service and to the living conditions of the poorest members of society? This information needs to be popularised and disseminated widely if it is to have maximum impact.

- Leadership: It’s often unfashionable to call for leadership as it’s seen as citizens abdicating responsibilities to men and women who ‘know better’. But what the recent past has shown is that where there is a lack of leadership or destructive leadership, it has deep consequences for the future.

The vacuum of leadership in South Africa has exacerbated the dire socio-economic situation we are in and almost crippled the ability of our society to deal constructively with its challenges. As Noami Klein says, "Politics hates a vacuum." Into the vacuum oft-times anything and everything falls. Fear or hate moves in – or sometimes simply misunderstanding - and in its worst form, hate, ignorance and violence. Over the past decade, we have suffered a lack of leadership and a recklessness which has dangerous consequences for our society as a whole – things burn and ‘fall’ with no wisdom as to what happens next. Words are also used far too carelessly when a vacuum of leadership exists.

- Active and engaged citizens: These are the ordinary people who question and do the work of democracy wherever they find themselves. That quiet work goes on every day in our country despite the excesses of many of those in power. It responds to circumstances and necessity often in the most creative of ways. But it also requires a thoughtfulness on the part of each of us, how we respond and when we do, to what we see around us.

As Judge Zondo said, we will have to do it ourselves.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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