Why and what do we still fear?

2013-04-29 10:00

Forty years ago, Steve Biko, then only 25 years old, wrote that fear was, and I quote, “an important determinant in South African politics”.

In a powerful column in Frank Talk, he said, in 1971, “blacks seem to me to have been successfully cowed down by?.?.?.?brutality?.?.?.?It is this fear that erodes the soul of black people in South Africa, a fear obviously built up deliberately by the system through myriad civil agents?.?.?.

It is a fear so basic in the considered actions of black people as to make it impossible to behave like people, let alone free people. From the attitude of a servant to his employer, to that of a black man being served by a white attendant at a shop, one sees this fear clearly showing through.”

Now, of course, our context has changed. But we South Africans have not yet fully eradicated the demons of our past. As black people, we have not yet psychologically liberated ourselves from the sense of inferiority and powerlessness that three centuries of oppression inculcated within us.

White people too are afraid to speak up, in their case because their superiority complexes or their guilt constrain them from participating fully as citizens and demanding high-quality public services and a clean government in their country.

As I said when launching Agang, we have seriously underestimated what it would take to walk the journey from being subjects of undemocratic governments, denied the right to make our own choices, to become citizens of a constitutional democracy, reclaiming control over our lives.

So it is that many of us, we who, against the odds, stood up to the military might of the apartheid government, now live in fear of speaking out and doing anything about our current plight.

People in poor communities say they are afraid of losing their social grants if they stand up against the governing party.

Leading professionals and businesspeople are afraid to speak their minds. When asked to name what they are afraid of, most look sheepish and say they don’t want to offend those in authority.

Some are honest enough to say they wouldn’t want to put their businesses or careers at risk. Some point to examples of their colleagues’ experiences of being shut out of business and career opportunities to indicate how real and great the risks are.

Individuals say they will support democratic causes quietly, but are fearful of speaking out against the government for fear of risking their public reputations or government tenders.

We’ve seen how some leaders of banks have been castigated for critical comments in their annual reports and stood firm. We have also seen how some business leaders have been forced to retract critical adverts with school children in them after being accused of undermining government.

We have also witnessed silence from the ranks of corporate business leadership when one of their own is attacked.

The solidarity that made the voice of business strong is missing in the current climate. It is each one for oneself. To the extent that business leaders assume that because today it is only the gypsies, tomorrow the Jews and another day someone else, they need not care. By the time they come for you, there will be no one else to care!

Central to the fear so many express is the extent to which the governing party has successfully conflated the person of the president, the governing party, the government and the state. As a result, poor people accept the notion that social grants are gifts of the governing party rather than entitlements to them as citizens from the state, which is a commonwealth.

Businesspeople and professionals too think their livelihood can be taken away from them by administrative fiat without any recourse.

We have not yet learnt we can turn to our Constitution to protect us from such abuses of power, that its provisions guard us against unjust administrative action. But constitutional protection needs to be claimed for it to be effective. In our constitutional democracy, we have no excuse to be afraid.

Think back to the times in our history when we triumphed over fear, when there was far more to be afraid of than there is now.

Think of the women’s march on the Union Buildings in 1956, when JG Strijdom was prime minister and his regime tried to extend passes, which limited free movement of black people, to women. Men counselled the women against their protest.

“It’s too dangerous,” they said. But the women marched and they forced the apartheid regime to back down. Do you remember what the women sang?

Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom!

Wathint` imbokodo uzo kufa!

Now you have touched the women, Strijdom!

You have dislodged a boulder!

You will be crushed!

Think too of the bravery of Robert Sobukwe and the protesters at Orlando Police Station, Sharpeville, and other places in 1960, when they burnt their passes and lined up at numerous police stations across the country in their thousands, telling the police: “Arrest us!”

Think of the courage of the high school students in Soweto in 1976, who were also told it was too dangerous and useless to oppose the regime.

They had been inspired by the black consciousness movement through formation schools run by university students aimed at helping them liberate themselves psychologically from being called non-whites to naming themselves as black and proud! When it came to action, it was all their own.

They took the initiative, saying: “Enough with having Afrikaans forced down our throats against our will; enough of gutter education under the Bantu education system.”

As Steve Biko said, the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. On June 16, the students, first of Soweto and then other places in our country, demonstrated that they had freed their minds.

They liberated themselves from fear and rendered the oppressive government powerless. The same applied to workers, religious leaders and many other civic leaders then. That was the spark that lit the torch of freedom that was faltering and won for us the liberation culminating in 1994.

And it is not only black South Africans who have had to overcome fear in the past. Think of the young Afrikaners and other privileged white activists who defied their parents to vote against the National Party, or to begin dialogue with their black compatriots in the 1970s and 1980s, preparing the way for and supporting the actions of FW de Klerk in opening constitutional negotiations in the 1990s.

What did the women, Sobukwe and those who marched with him in 1960, the young people in Soweto in 1976, and young Afrikaners have in common?

They overcame their fear and ignored others who told them they should be afraid. Until they acted, their fear bound them in chains. When they took action, setting fear aside, they broke their chains.

We stand now at a point in our history which is no less pivotal than 1976.

The country of our dreams that we imagined, the bright future we saw in 1994 is becoming dimmer and dimmer. In too many public schools, teachers aren’t in class or they are not prepared to teach. Textbooks aren’t being delivered reliably and on time. Schools have no toilets, no libraries, no laboratories in too many poor communities across our country. Among the younger generation, 3?million people are not in school, at work or in training.

A culture of corruption and impunity is seeping through every level of government, corroding our entire society. It is estimated corruption robs us of more than R30?billion from our government’s budget every year through abuse of the procurement system.

The most outrageous examples are a private palace costing more than R200?million for President Zuma at Nkandla; irregular leases for police buildings and civil servants and/or their families doing business with government departments that pay them a salary.

Government itself has acknowledged 8?000 public servants in the Eastern Cape have been doing business with the health department, making it no surprise the healthcare system in the province has collapsed.

Let us be clear. These are not just bumps on the road to a better future. These are not the inevitable pains of a transitional period. They are a betrayal of the founding principles of our democracy; a betrayal of what our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers fought and died for.

We didn’t fight and die in the fight against apartheid so that millions of South Africans should live like forgotten people. The future of our country is at stake, and the hopes and dreams of generations of young people hang in the balance. We cannot fail them for one more day.

Twenty years is too long to wait for leaders who put South Africa first. It is time to overcome our fear. It is time to restore the promise.

This is the future that calls us, the promise we believed in 1994 and can believe again today, if we overcome our fear. The odds are not as great as those that faced the women’s march in 1956; not as great as those that faced Sobukwe; not as great as those that faced the ragtag group of young people in Soweto in 1976.

The dangers today are not so great, but the stakes are just as high. Our future is at risk, but our history and the examples of leaders setting aside their fear inspire us and point the way.

We need to overcome this fear of standing up for ourselves and standing up against corruption and patronage today – just as we did in the past.

That can only happen if individuals overcome fear, stand up and then stand together and work towards a common cause.

And, unlike during apartheid, we are living under a Constitution that gives us the right to a decent education for our children, the right to efficient healthcare, the right to a proper housing process, and which protects our right to organise and mobilise as citizens to demand these rights when we don’t get them.

Our progress in the freedom struggle was fuelled by those moments when we overcame fear. As a result, in 1994, Madiba was able to stand in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings, the place to which the women marched in 1956, and tell us that “never, never and never again should we allow the oppression of one by another in South Africa”.

Now, 20 years after our liberation, let us resolve as a free people finally to consign fear in our political and public lives to a bottomless pit from which it will never emerge. We owe it to ourselves, to our futures, and to the futures of our children and grandchildren.

»?Ramphele is the leader of Agang SA

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