JUDITH FEBRUARY: South Africa, where do we go from here?


This past week has been deeply painful. Where do we go from here?

We all feel the collective sorrow of a country torn apart. But the sorrow is also deeply personal for all of us who live in this beleaguered, beautiful place.

Much has been written about the violence unleashed last week. Whispers of a coup d’etat and an insurrection were heard as early as Monday. How do we name these events that we lived through last week?

Much more will still be written about the need to be united in our diversity and the need to work together, we will invoke our beloved Madiba and remember his and others’ sacrifices, and we will talk of how collectively we are better than those who seek to divide us. We will speak of rebuilding despite the uncertainty of the present moment.

In the immediate aftermath of the violent attack on the state, its people and their livelihoods, there seemed space only for lament and very little for sense-making. But amidst the debris, we know certain things to be true. In drawing these threads together we can start to make sense of the past week.

Our country has always been broken. 1994 provided us with a brief respite and we wrought what was called a ‘miracle’. Deep down we all knew that while the foundation was laid, there was plenty of work to be done to ensure not only civil and political freedom, but also that the aspiration of our Constitution, in the form of socio-economic rights for all people, was met. It is the right moment to remind ourselves that we have failed dismally to bring about a just society in which every individual can fully enjoy the rights of citizenship.

Our country has also always been adept at the language of violence. So analyst after analyst told us that last week was entirely expected. In a country with 32% unemployment rate, a youth unemployment rate of 70% and shamefully deep levels of inequality, who would be surprised, they said. Add to that the near wasted decade of state capture, the corruption within the governing ANC, corrupt, inept local government and hollowed out institutions, and it is a toxic mix.

Anyone who has been following South African politics and society even cursorily would understand the challenges before us. Yet, with all the certitude of analysis, no-one could quite predict the precise contours of the past week and the collective trauma we all experienced as we watched infrastructure being sabotaged, people looting malls in full view of television cameras and hundreds die.

What we witnessed was a fire sparked by former President Zuma and his shameful coterie of the corrupt. They are a motley and dangerous crew. We now know that they would indeed raze this country to the ground to escape accountability. We have seen the alternative they offer; a state unbound by rules. They are within the state, within Zuma’s own family and within the ANC itself. It is a spine-chilling prospect that there are those within the police who would simply stand back and let it all burn.

We also know that our police and Intelligence agencies were hopelessly unprepared. Ramaphosa admitted as much in his Friday night address. His words were sobering; the threat to our democratic state is a “clear and present one”.

That there needs to be urgent revamp of the intelligence agencies is obvious. It is worth noting that applications have been invited for the position of Inspector-General of Intelligence as required by s210(b) of the Constitution. This appointment is now more important than ever given the abject failure of intelligence over the past week. The same vigilance would need to be applied in the South African Police Service.

Despite the disorder within the state, this past week South Africans of all walks of life came out in droves to assist with the cleaning up of destroyed malls and to protect property, neighbourhoods and livelihoods. These people represent the very best of who we are. There was no time to wait for a politician to come out and co-ordinate a rescue effort. As South Africans we now fully understand that this weak and compromised state is truly incapable of rescuing us. As the old US civil rights refrain went, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

In protecting communities, we reclaimed some of the pride we all lost in the embers of this terrible week for our country. Ramaphosa has urged us to clean our streets and build up what has been broken down. The President himself was seen on Sunday, Mandela Day, assisting the clean-up operation. He is right that we should start taking responsibility for our own neighbourhoods. But this is far bigger than simply a clean-up. It is in fact about reimagining civic life.

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. Essentially Boyte argues for a new kind of (citizen) politics that centres on “negotiating a common life”.

At present, protest action in South Africa is mostly embarked upon by those who 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, whether in small community groups or larger ones. Unfortunately, citizenship today is largely passive: citizens ‘receive’ government services and are bestowed rights.

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 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?

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.

This is a difficult time and will be one of continuing tension. We need to understand finally that politicians do not hold the answers and that our obsession with the internal politics of the ANC has distracted us from the true work of democracy.

It is also abundantly clear that South Africa needs a new social compact, and urgently.

If Ramaphosa was waiting for a ‘Break glass now!’ moment, this is it. When he took office, Ramaphosa committed his government to re-establishing the social compact between government, business and labour.

Pandora’s box has been opened and Ramaphosa should now simply expend the political capital he has. To do so, he will need to harness the overwhelming majority of South Africans and social partners against the common ‘enemy’ - those who seek to destroy the democratic state and endanger its citizens.

On Friday Ramaphosa told us “we know who they are”, when he spoke of those who attempted this insurrection. As citizens we expect him to be true to his word and we expect these perpetrators to face the “full might of the law”, to use that South African cliché. We expect that to happen whether they are ANC members or not.

Now is not the time to flinch in the face of these anarchists. If arrests do not happen soon, then the state will have shown itself to be weaker than what was on display last week. It will also seriously erode the President’s power.

Ramaphosa has a moment now too to reshuffle his Cabinet: let us rid ourselves of the disloyal, the corrupt and the feeble. There is a long list, but can we afford a Minister of Police known only for bluster and sartorial inelegance and whose loyalty to Ramaphosa is questionable? What of Lindiwe Sisulu who rushed to Nkandla in heels before Zuma’s arrest and defended the appearance of men in fatigues? And what of Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams who said that Zuma understood the Constitution well and would speak out against the violence if he had access to proper communications?

Apart from dealing with the internal ANC politics and a Cabinet reshuffle, the President should be at the forefront of starting the grand project of social reconstruction. The paralysis that is the ANC’s internal politics is untenable and has now led to the anarchy we saw unleashed last week.

South Africans have shown that they have little appetite for the destruction of insurrection. They have shown even less appetite to ‘die for Zuma’. What they did demonstrate was a will and a resilience to build a country and to protect their communities. What we also saw was the very real desperation of people to access food and any form of resource. Ramaphosa should use the levers he still has within business and civil society to shore up his support in multiple constituencies across the country. He needs to be seen on the streets of our country, coalescing communities and churches and he needs to really listen to what the people have to say. He also really needs to be answering questions from the media in real time.

Our country needs lasting change and lasting solutions which bring about urgent justice for those on the margins of society. Implementing a basic income grant would be a useful starting point. Much research has been done on the viability of such a universal grant. The simple point is that we cannot afford not to do it. Alongside that must be a drive towards a mass employment scheme for the youth and a deeper commitment to quality education for all. We will need to dig deep and deploy all our intellectual capital to reach for solutions to the crisis we face right now.

In the prologue to their book Enemy of the People, authors Adriaan Basson and Pieter du Toit ask poignantly, “How did a man who swore on 9 May 2009 that he would commit himself ‘to the service of our nation with dedication, commitment, discipline, integrity, hard work and passion’ come to embody everything that is wrong with South Africa? They go on to say, “…Zuma and his circle of rogue protectors broke not only the country’s spirit and moral fibre but also our hearts”.

As we watched people queue for food and petrol and trucks being escorted by the SANDF and hospitals burning, we fully understood that Zuma and his rogue supporters, and all those who continue to enable his assault on our democracy, including his unprincipled lawyers, truly are enemies of the people.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and 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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