JUDITH FEBRUARY: The clock is ticking on Ramaphosa's insurrection response


"Despair is the state we fall into when our imagination fails. When we have no stories that describe the present and guide the future, hope evaporates. Political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination" (George Monbiot, 2017).

Sometimes words do not suffice to describe deeply painful moments in the history of a country. We are living through a grand trifecta - a political, social and economic crisis.

Last Sunday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation again. This time it was primarily to deal with lifting of certain COVID-19 restrictions.

The last time he addressed us, he referred to the violence we had experienced in the wake of former President Jacob Zuma’s arrest. Then, Ramaphosa called what had happened an "insurrection" and said the instigators would face "the full might of the law".

South Africans are usually sceptical when this sort of language is used. This is because in general we live in a country of no consequence and the full might of the law rarely applies to anyone. Accountability, like shame is a rare commodity.

While it may sound trivial how we name things is crucial if we are to deal with them effectively. So when minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula contradicted Ramaphosa and then backtracked, it showed- yet again- a state in disarray. It also told us something about the nature of Ramaphosa’s cabinet that not everyone was ‘on message’. Or, that some were openly defying the President’s authority by muddying the waters.
Either way it does not inspire confidence. The ministers within the security cluster of cabinet have been contradicting each other in ways which pose a direct threat to our collective security.

So when the president addressed us, we did not expect another wooden speech from behind the podium.
We expected action. We expected him to announce that there was speedy accountability for the failed insurrection and we expected a Cabinet reshuffle.

None of that happened, which was deeply unfortunate. The clock is ticking on Ramaphosa’s response to the insurrection. Either he uses this moment to expend his political capital, clean up the security cluster and reshuffle the incompetent and disloyal from his cabinet or he risks looking and sounding weak. If now is not the moment to deal with the insurrectionists, then it is hard to know what Ramaphosa is waiting for- an assault on the Union Buildings?

The Ramaphosa "long game" is becoming tired. After the violence, looting and billions of Rands’ damage to the economy, citizens have the right to demand more.

Ramaphosa went on to announce a package of support specifically, the reintroduction of a R350 income grant to the poorest citizens between the ages of 18 and 59. The special relief of distress social grant would also be available to unemployed caregivers as well. The grant is expected to reach at least 6-million unemployed and 3.5-million caregivers and will be paid until the end of March 2022. This could be a game-changer and hopefully the precursor to the introduction of a Universal Basic Income Ramaphosa also announced a raft of support measures for businesses that have been affected by both the lockdown and the violence.

What we have also known for years is that our social compact, which was always tenuous even in the heady days after 1994, has been fraying to the point of breaking. No society with the levels of poverty and inequality equal to ours is viable or sustainable.

With a youth unemployment rate at over 70%, what chance is there for young people to buy into the future? Or, to buy into a constitution which they believe does not "deliver" to them? Of course a constitution is not a self-executing document and so we need to ask some very serious questions about a government and a governing ANC whose internecine battles simply render it unfit for purpose.

Everything has now been laid bare: the weakness of the state, the failure of the Police and Intelligence services and the full effects of state capture. Ramaphosa’s cabinet ministers looked at sixes and sevens, as did he in his first public address. Later he confessed that government was surprised by what had happened. What a spectacular lack of preparedness. Ramaphosa was clearly not prepared for the enemy within.

While quelling the unrest and the fear is the first priority, we desperately need dignity for those on the margins of our society. Last week the formal inquest into the Life Esidimeni deaths started. Can there be any more proof (though it exists, sadly) of the inhumanity of the state towards those most vulnerable? This formal inquest started five years- yes, five years- after the tragedy. How callous is this state? But we know that it is when Michael Komape, a young child drowns in his own faeces in a pit latrine toilet. When the Komapes sued the state, it conceded that it had been negligent but . This heartlessness and corruption must end.

The social partners should be convened to think through further creative economic interventions at this time of absolute crisis. But more than that, this is a moment for renewed citizen activism in every possible sphere of our society.

What the attempted insurrection has shown us is that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. South Africans have shown that they have little appetite for the destruction unleashed by 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. Thousands of people across race groups have come out to clean their streets and towns and also to protect their malls and shops. It has shown the other side of who we are.

Let us stop putting our faith in compromised politicians and instead build communities. This will mean understanding that our futures are intrinsically interlinked. Ramaphosa has encouraged us to clean our streets and our neighbourhoods: an excellent initiative in a country choking on its own litter and degradation. Yet, Ramaphosa should not have been seen surrounded by people doing so in ANC regalia or Thuma mina! /CR22 sweaters.
This should be a moment far beyond the tawdry, cannibalistic ANC internal party politics. In fact, Ramaphosa should be seen on the streets with local leaders, opposition party leaders, churches and civic groups and coalescing society around community initiatives, big and small. It is the moment of political imagination Monbiot calls for.

This is where we are. Our constitutional order is hanging by a thread.

We decide whether it lives or dies. We, the people have that power.

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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