JUDITH FEBRUARY: Renewed citizen activism critical in SA


Last week was a quintessentially South African week. Load shedding - a polite word for literally being left in the dark - was once again upon us and at almost the precise moment when President Ramaphosa was trying to sell his ‘not-so-New Dawn’ to investors in London. Eskom apologised again and board chairperson and acting CEO, Jabu Mabuza, provided what can only be described as a convoluted explanation for what went wrong.

In the meantime, Minerals Minister Gwede Mantashe unveiled the government’s Integrated Resource Plan to some fanfare but alas, the wrong plan was uploaded on the government website. It felt as if the state was a parody of itself for a moment.

The reality, of course, is that South Africa is busy digging itself out of a hole of the ‘wasted years’ of state capture. The looting of the state has far-reaching repercussions and we are still counting the precise cost of the looting, while the looters walk freely among us.

No doubt Finance Minister Tito Mboweni will remind us of the cost of years of corrupt and inefficient government later this month when he delivers his Medium Term Budget Policy Statement. The news will be grim and that should come as no surprise. Neither should it come as a surprise that we are in load-shedding mode again, or that we seem at sixes and sevens in trying to implement a reform agenda.

The unfortunate fact is that every day is simply a different version of the same narrative. The reforms have begun - we see them slowly but surely in, inter alia, the National Prosecuting Authority and its slow work, in the feverish attempts to get Sars back on track and in the court judgments which slowly roll back corrupt events of the past. Yet, the road will be long and hard. Rebuilding hollowed out institutions, trying to build capacity within a state which has largely been stripped of individuals of skill and integrity will take time. And it will take considerable time and effort for government to recreate linkages of trust between itself and citizens.

At present, most South Africans simply cannot believe what politicians say - perhaps also not unique to South Africa given the state of the world and some of the lying charlatans who run it at present.

The challenge, however, is not only for Ramaphosa and his government but for us all to reimagine our country and engage in renewed citizen activism so that we can transform our society in a sustainable way.

‘Transformation’ is a tired and over-used word in South Africa. It is often used as a proxy to advance narrow political interests. Yet, the work of transforming a society needs to be done with care and has been described by former Chief Justice Pius Langa in his essay, ‘Transformative constitutionalism’ as follows:

‘Transformation is a permanent ideal, a way of looking at the world that creates a space in which dialogue and contestation are truly possible, in which new ways of being are constantly explored and created, accepted and rejected and in which change is unpredictable but the idea of change is constant. This is perhaps the ultimate vision of a transformative Constitution... It envisions a society that will always be open to change and contestation, a society that will always be defined by transformation.’

Transformation is often difficult because we are weighed down by the anger of both the past and the present, though in different ways. Our dialogue is brittle and blame is apportioned readily and angrily. We seem not to listen; we simply turn up the volume and out-shout the other. It is difficult to have a debate on solutions for the future in this context.

Rhodes University academic Anthea Garman says: “South Africa is going through a moment of quite powerful rupture. This rupture is not so much with the apartheid of colonial past, as much as with the immediate democratic past which has failed to deliver on its promises of equality for all and which has its own lack of credible rupture with the apartheid past.”

Accountability is hard also because there is a trust deficit created by our past. ‘The past’ lies between us in every debate about race and class and in every disagreement about structural inequality and an economy built on cheap labour. It hampers our ability to find creative solutions.

The lack of accountability for past wrongs by those within the apartheid regime has left discomfort in the present, the danger of which is illustrated by Antjie Krog’s extraordinary poem 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)

It is clear that the ANC alone (some might say cannot at all) fix it. So citizens must, divided as we are. It will take a mammoth collective effort from business, civil society and communities to rise up and speak out against the inaction fuelled by those who would consign our country to the dustbin of failed state status. It is not too late to do so.

There are ‘green shoots’ and we should be working hard to support initiatives aimed at greater government accountability. Zuma has fallen, but it’s not enough.

And so, the question we have to ask is: ‘What is the work for us to do?’ That is both an individual and collective question for each one of us as we try to create a country which is more just and more equal.

Barack Obama, in his final speech to the UN, was correct when he said:

‘It turns out building accountable institutions is hard work - the work of generations. The gains are often fragile. Sometimes we take one step forward and then two steps back. So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully, because both the facts and history, I believe, are on our side. That doesn’t mean democracies are without flaws. It does mean that the cure for what ails our democracies is greater engagement by our citizens - not less.’

American activist and academic Harry Boyte has worked extensively on re-imagining the civic space and understanding how societies can move towards a more citizen-centred politics.

He starts from the premise of ‘respectful conversations’ that shift the centre of politics away from politicians.

Essentially Boyte argues for a new kind of (citizen) politics that centres on ‘negotiating a common life’. The creation of so-called free spaces is essential to the notion of citizens organising themselves. Boyte, together with his colleague Sara Evans, relies on the model at work in 1960s America. During the civil rights movement, civic spaces were re-imagined in venues ranging from churches to beauty parlours. Boyte champions the notion of broad-based community organising in colleges and other spaces with citizens as ‘co-creators’ with the state and not simply voting fodder.

At present, protest action in South Africa is further fuelled by the poor who feel they have been forgotten by those in power once an election has come and gone. Citizens need to develop a sense of agency that moves beyond the protest. This requires sustained and systematic forms of mobilisation by citizens, whether in small community groups or larger ones.

Unfortunately, citizenship today is largely passive: citizens ‘receive’ government services and are bestowed rights. “The default of consumer culture,” Boyte says, “is that people ask what they can get, rather than thinking about what they could build, in terms of common resources”.

Are South Africans mature enough to do what Boyte suggests and “work across differences to solve common problems, advance justice, and create community wealth, from schools, public spaces, libraries and local businesses to art, music and healthy lifestyles …”? In the examples he cites in educational spaces, teams of young people worked on ‘real world issues’ such as ‘campaigns against bullying, sexual harassment, racism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence to building playgrounds, championing healthy lifestyles, and making curriculum changes’.

In South Africa, Equal Education has done similar work with students, governing bodies, school management and parents aimed at creating safer school environments, ensuring the state develops norms and standards around educational infrastructure, and demanding transport to and from school for children living far away from the nearest school. Such localised initiatives have been possible largely because of the mobilisation of students and parents. It is a model worth extending to other areas of socio-economic development and where the state has abdicated its responsibilities.

We can build our communities as spaces to which we have an attachment and in which we would like to see change. We all have a stake in the future of such places to live and work. It takes a shared vision and is best cultivated at local level before moving to the national level where accountability is demanded on different issues.

In a South African context, we can see where such ‘creative citizenship’ (co-creation with the state) could take us. It would go beyond passive citizenship and the mere demanding of rights towards meaningful interaction between citizens and their public representatives. Our Constitution champions ‘public participation’ but too often that participation is shallow and technocratic and does not facilitate an ongoing conversation between citizens and elected representatives. Is there any wonder that ‘burning’ has become commonplace?

In the #FeesMustFall movement there were nascent signs of our ability to build the kinds of circles of learning and meaning within universities that are needed for us to talk about decolonisation and other areas of concern. But those circles need to become more inclusive to reap real benefits. They also need to be led with increased thoughtfulness because issues such as changing curricula cannot be the sole domain of a few. The Right2Know campaign has also pursued successful campaigns over several years regarding the cost of mobile telephone data. Their campaign, #DataMustFall, has mobilised the poor in communities where the mobile phone has become a crucial way of communication but also for the transferring of remittances and other daily tasks. The ‘right to communicate’ has thus been reframed as a human right.

However, more needs to be done in terms of moving towards a broader, more liberating notion of citizenship as ‘work’ and as co-creating with the state. For that to happen, civic education regarding the rights and responsibilities in the Constitution must take place in schools and other places of learning.

All sectors of society need to be part of re-imagining civic life, including business, which is a key actor. As the World Economic Forum argues, companies need to see the benefits of ‘defending civic space’, which includes ‘the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest against failings and corruption’. In a 2017 World Economic Forum report, the ‘fraying rule of law and declining civic freedoms’ was cited as a major global risk for companies. In South Africa this will mean that business too recreates its role as ‘citizen’ to operate ethically regarding, inter alia, workers’ rights, occupational safety, transparent tender processes, as well as executive pay.

In South Africa, Marikana stands out as an example in the mining industry where a company engaged in unsustainable and unethical practices in the way in which employees were both paid and housed. Steinhoff is another. But, as the World Economic Forum report points out, it is not only business but civil society that needs to build pathways between them to protect human rights and find solutions to the challenges faced.

Ramaphosa has committed his government to re-establishing the social compact between government, business and labour. We have to do more to ensure that linkages between government, business, civil society and citizen groups are strengthened in order to work collectively towards a society that is more just and less unequal. These sectors can no longer work in isolation and it will mean combining resources and expertise, where appropriate. This not only envisages Boyte’s notion of democratic ‘co-creation’ with the state, but also leads to a society that is more resilient in dealing with the turbulence that comes along with living in a deeply unequal society.

We are in a very particular time of global and local tension. Yet we have a window of opportunity, a second chance, which calls for the very opposite of despair, for greater mobilisation and the true awakening of citizen activism for progressive values and corruption-free societies to thrive.

As Cody Keenan wrote in his recent essay on the #Resist movement in the United States: ‘History is made every day by the hopeful.’

Or as Adrienne Rich has written:

‘My heart is moved by all I cannot save:

so much has been destroyed.

I have to cast my lot with those

who, age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,

reconstitute the world.’

And so, despite the complexity of the present and the future, a degree of hope still glimmers for us. There is much work to be done to reconstitute our own country – and for that, the centre has to hold.

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' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february