These are difficult days. All around us there are multiple manifestations of the politics of rage. Our strikes are violent, as are our service delivery protests. Student ferment has been on the rise, and has in many cases also turned violent. Our public discourse and electoral campaign rhetoric are similarly replete with militaristic language and violent imagery.

The rage is of course understandable. Many have warned us for a long time that the extreme levels of inequality, which have only grown in the post-apartheid era, and the political and societal polarisation it engenders will catch up with us.

The cherry on top is the corruption, perhaps most egregiously reflected in the Marie Antoinettesque character of the Nkandla saga. The failure of the ANC to rein in the excesses of its president has contributed to the culture of rage, and the politics that emanates from it.

But as much as this rage is understandable, does the politics that manifests from it put us on a path to addressing the economic and social inclusion that is necessary to heal the divides of our society?

Zwelinzima Vavi and Julius Malema have publicly recognised the folly of advancing Jacob Zuma as a presidential candidate, and have committed themselves to working for his removal. But have they recognised that the politics — the rhetoric, alliances, campaigns, the leadership selection — itself has to change if we are to have socioeconomic inclusion and accountability, and if we are to address the corruption that is all around us?

Malema ended his speech at the EFF’s manifesto launch recently with a commitment to speak “truth to power”. But there is also a need to speak truth to oppositional power, to the general secretaries of the trade unions, the leaders of the social movements, and the presidents and commanders-in-chief of the opposition parties.

If we are truly serious about a more inclusive society, if this is not mere rhetoric so that a new group of political elite can get their chance at the feeding trough, then we need a new politics of accountability that is principled yet pragmatic, peaceful yet robust, infused with integrity yet responsive to the real needs of our citizenry and in particular to the poor.

I wish it were different, but I do not see this new politics. In fact, current politics is eerily reminiscent of the run-up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference in December 2007. Then we had ruling party and associated conferences that were chaotic, where delegate representation was manipulated, and a youth league conference where the successfully elected leadership bared their behinds to the cameras that greedily lapped up the political buffoonery on display.

Today we still have ruling party and associated conferences in disarray, where again delegate representation is manipulated, and we have the added bonus of a parliament in organisational chaos and where similarly cringeworthy political behaviour is on display.

Then we spoke about a people’s political tsunami and we revelled in a political leader who sang Umshini Wami because it unsettled society’s elite. Today we have the leader of the youth league threatening civil war, and an opposition leader wanting to remove a president through the barrel of the gun and meeting violence with violence, and again so many of us revel in this because it mocks the president and those around him. Then and now we have some state institutions politically manipulated and others paralysed because of being ridden by factions within the ruling party.

Leadership quality is similarly questionable.

Then we chose a leader who was flawed, implicated in corruption, simply because he had populist inclinations and was able to strike a rapport with the marginalised and enraged. Today we do the same, choosing leaders with questionable integrity records, in the hope that they will unseat a president many of us are deeply opposed to.

Then we believed that the leader will change when in office, or that his excesses would be reined in by those around him.

Today we make the same argument about leaders growing into the job, political maturing, and we use selected evidence from Madiba’s past to buttress the case.

Yet Zuma did not change his behaviour and his excesses. He merely replaced a Shaik with a Gupta and added a few more zeros to the scandals that he became immersed in. Then some on the left, including in the SACP, argued they would contain Zuma’s excesses — and yet within a few years it was they who had been politically contained. Today we hear the same argument being made about leaders by some in the civil society coalition intent on getting Zuma to step down. But if Zuma did not change or was not contained, why do we believe that things will change with the current crop of leaders?

We do not believe this when Republican Americans make the case that Donald Trump will change his behaviour if he is in the White House. And for good reason. George Bush did not change when he dubiously won the American presidency in 2000. Instead he gave us the Iraq war and pushed our world to a political precipice. And if we think that these excesses are only possible on the right, then think again.

Stalin, the leaders of China’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot of Cambodia and even Idi Amin of Uganda all started on the pretext of advancing the interests of the poor.

The excesses of the extreme and unaccountable left can be as devastating for society as those of the far right.

Why then do we believe that outcomes will be any different from our flawed leaders? After all, a leopard very rarely changes it spots.

But what of the Madiba example? It is worth noting the anecdotal case of Madiba that is often quoted is his advancement of a radical agenda of nationalisation and even armed struggle in his younger years.

But it is important to underscore that Madiba was never accused of unethical or corrupt conduct. In addition, his willingness to take up arms was against the apartheid state and a system that effectively shut him and millions of black people out of the formal political arena.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Madiba spent years in prison and — as a result — understood in a very personal way the nature of the power he confronted and how it could be challenged.

This challenge was also deeply deliberated on within the party and society in a way that just does not happen today. These conditions do not exist for today’s crop of leaders and we should therefore not expect them to exhibit the same level of political evolution and maturing.

Madiba’s case highlights the necessity for us to confront power and transform society towards the inclusive vision we collectively share.

In the immediate years after the 1994 election, our political elite, confronted by a new world order, essentially took the view that there was no alternative but to concede to a conservative (some would say neoliberal) macroeconomic agenda.

The net effect was a flawed freedom, with political rights for all, yet economic marginalisation for many. These conditions have provoked the rage we witness in our midst. But confronted with this rage, and perhaps even drunk on the power imparted by social mobilisation, too many of our oppositional leadership make the converse mistake of believing that social justice in its entirety is immediately possible.

There is too little appreciation of structural constraints and countervailing power, with the result that the current generation of activists and organic intellectuals risk the same unintended consequence of their predecessors.

Part of the problem is a lack of appreciation of context.

Too many believe that social justice will emerge from tired old formulas developed in the 60s and 70s in other parts of the world. There is insufficient appreciation of the fact that the world has changed, capital is more mobile than ever, and there is a need for trade-offs. There is too little recognition of the fact that social justice will result from a process through the progressive realisation of rights. The struggle for social justice in this era is a struggle for structural reforms, reforms that lead into a never-ending cycle of the progressive deepening of social justice outcomes. In the course of this drawn-out struggle, trade-offs will be required, and hard choices will have to be made. These cannot be avoided, for to do so would lead to unintended consequences.

This is what Madiba understood by the time he was released from prison, and it is the realisation that this cohort of activists need to come to in 2016. This does not mean that Madiba and his leadership did not make mistakes. Indeed, they made some serious ones, the most substantive of which was to too easily accede to the global macroeconomic consensus. But despite this, Madiba’s leadership enabled South Africa to avoid a civil war and bequeathed us a democracy, even if it is an unequal and flawed one. The new generation of activists need a measure of humility and should not try to read the concessions of 1993 from the perspective of 2016.

Moreover, they need to learn the strategic lesson that political progress requires recognising power, and learning how to engage it with a view to building a socially inclusive future.

There are dangers in this strategy. Reforms decided upon may be too self-contained and may not lead to the deepening of social justice.

Leaders can be co-opted, as has happened in so many cases since 1994. But these dangers must not mean an abandonment of the strategic orientation.

Rather, it requires the mitigation of the risks, perhaps best done by choosing leaders with integrity, holding them accountable through organisation and social mobilisation, and ensuring there is a public deliberation of the trade-offs required.

The fundamental lesson to be learnt is that if we are truly committed to social inclusion and addressing inequality, there is a need to change not only leaders, but our politics itself. Such a revitalised politics must at a minimum contain four distinct elements:

  • Choose leaders with integrity and who have not been ethically and morally compromised;
  • Avoid opportunistic alliances that represent coalitions of politically wounded individuals.
  • Build strategic alliances that are principled, directed at building leverage to initiate structural reforms;
  • Recognise that the realisation of social justice is a process that will require hard trade-offs, and commit to and enable the public deliberation of these trade-offs;
  • Radical politics does not automatically require violence. Commit to a robust but peaceful struggle and compel leaders to avoid a rhetoric that invokes militaristic and violent imagery.

Without such radical but nonviolent politics, this generation of activists run the risk of unintended consequences. In the process they will not only repeat the failures of our past, but may also unravel some of the limited political and social progress already made.

Universal history is replete with such examples in recent times. We should not become another case in this cohort of democratic reversals.

Habib is vice-chancellor and principal of Wits University.

This article was first published in Sunday Times of May 15 2016.

Image courtesy of Lihlumelo Toyana.