Combining analytical insight with personal observations and experience, Judith February highlights the complex process of building a strong democratic society in her new book Turning and Turning and the difficulties of living in a constitutional democracy marked by soaring levels of inequality. There is a need to reflect on and learn from the country’s democratic journey if citizens are to shape our democracy effectively and to fulfill the promise of the Constitution for all South Africans. This is an extract from her book.
It has become increasingly clear that the ANC, even with new leadership, will not be able to ‘fix’ our society and nor should we expect it to. If political parties are too caught up in their own power plays to map a way forward for our country and give meaning to the vision of our Constitution, then we as citizens must do it, even in the context of our divided, complex society. 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 corrupt politics. Obama once said: ‘If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.’ Stay at it. A marathon, not a sprint. There is a positive resilience that has been growing at the heart of our society in the past few years, as a response either to our current condition or to Zuma’s blatant corruption. There are what I call ‘green shoots’ out there, initiatives aimed at greater government accountability, and we should be supporting them. Citizen activism has been an important, probably decisive, defender of South Africa’s democracy and constitutional order. This has been seen in the protests against secrecy, against the venal use of apartheid-era legislation, such as the National Key Points Act, in pushing for transparency on matters such as party funding, in protesting against state capture – and in thousands of smaller, typically unrecorded assertions of the right of citizens to be taken seriously when faced with official arrogance, dishonesty or indifference. Of course, civil society embraces a wide variety of ideological and political perspectives, not all compatible with one another. That activists and activist groups may disagree with one another is not especially important. The willingness to debate ideas and to contest abuses ensures that any intrusion into the freedoms and constitutional entitlements of South Africa’s people will always meet resistance. Van Zyl Slabbert once wrote:
Even if it is so that some intellects in government crave for a ‘Gramscian hegemony’ over the masses, they haven’t got a snowball’s hope in hell. The scope and diversity of civic action simply defies such hegemony. Voluntary associations in the areas of literacy, health, skills development, business management, orphan care, combating AIDS, perform magnificently. I have met and observed many of them. Of course, government can play an important enabling role, but if it does not do so, it will simply be regarded as irrelevant. There is boundless arrogance in the notion that you have the right to tell ordinary common sense folk how and what to think.
As is evident throughout this book, it has been strong, open media and robust civil society organisations that have stood between us and the most egregious breaches of our Constitution. The civil society groups are too numerous to mention but I think of the Right2Know campaign and its dogged pursuit to prevent the securitisation of the state; Black Sash, which has fought a valiant campaign against corruption within SASSA; and Section27, which continues to fight for the rights of the vulnerable.
We can take deep comfort in this. 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’, as the IDASA definition of a functional democracy requires? Our society, now more than ever, is in need of critical voices on every front as it continues the battle to find its soul. We will need critical voices if we are to engage in debates about a ‘post-Zuma world’ and the kind of leadership South Africa needs. How do we forge a society in which we can talk honestly about race, class and other fault-lines? How does society raise up leaders amongst us, capable of what Ndebele once called ‘counterintuitive leadership’? 37 This takes us beyond the ANC and Ramaphosa and any other political party. It is re-imagining a quite different South Africa. There are a number of areas that I believe need special attention if we are to sustain the momentum and take advantage of the small window of opportunity which the Ramaphosa presidency presents.
Post-apartheid South Africa’s greatest failure has been education, despite the fact that we have spent more on education as a percentage of GDP than on any other area. Too many curriculum changes, the loss of experienced teachers, an insufficient embedding of a culture of learning, some errant teachers and weak administration have hampered our ability to educate the next generation. Too many South African children simply drop out of school before reaching matric and the annual ‘puff ’ surrounding the matric pass rate is simply that – puff, given that a small percentage of those who pass are able to enter university. So obsessed is the state with numbers that an increase in the overall matric pass rate is trumpeted as proof that we are educating for the future.
Find out more about Turning and Turning.