It's time to talk

2009-08-12 00:00

WHEREVER we gather as organs of civil society, we tend to whinge and shout about others, especially the government, business and donors. We give graphic descriptions of what is wrong with everybody but ourselves. We arrogate to ourselves the position of saviours of society. Sometimes this is very obviou­s in the tone of our voices, but most of the time the self-righteousness is a deeply hidden part of our consciousness.

By civil society, I mean NGOs, think-tanks, social movements and academics. There are few academ­ics who dare leave their ivory towers to engage with lesser-educated others. Dialogue is an intrins­ic part of the life of anyone working in civil society. This is the best way for non-state actors to influenc­e the direction of our country and continent.

The mountain of knowledge in books about what we have done wrong and how we can put those things right is usually shunned by both activists and political leaders. South Africans generally do very little reading. We must rank among the lowest with regard to people who read for general knowledge. There are a number of excellent and simply written books on general societal issues — books of various length and written in various languages. Written as fiction, humorous non-fiction and satire, these books are accessible. Take, for instance, Ndumiso Ngcobo’s Some Of My Best Friends Are White or Niq Mhlongo’s After Tears. They provide a light-hearted commentary about everything in post-apartheid community life.

But like most of us, politicians don’t read much. Even journalists and columnists who we hold in so much regard as purveyors of information and ideas have a poor relationship with books and other sources of knowledge. So, civil society groups compensate for this by convening endless workshops and conferences to share information and ideas in order to influence decision makers and opinion shapers. It is wrong to call for an end to these dialogues, which are sometimes called talk shops.

While our young democracy was founded on a negotiated settlement, negotiations were limited to a small portion of our elite. Understandably, many of us were excluded by virtue of our position in society and political party alliances. Members of political parties had limited opportunities, as parties canvassed positions on any­thing from the structure of the state, its Constitution, economic policy, Human Rights Bill to the role of Parliament.

However, we assume that the World Trade Centre talks that invol­ved fewer than 1 000 individuals were tantamount to a national dialogue about our identity and direc­tion as a nation or community of nations. Once these elite talks were concluded, producing an excel­lent outcome with a progressive Constitution, policy programme and liberal laws, we thought this was sufficient to transform us from traumatised subjects to free citizens.

Civil movements, street committees, umanyano associations and NGO’s that had helped drive the grass-roots struggles for freedom suddenly collapsed. Community leaders were incorporated int­o the new government or businesses. The euphoria of political freedom fooled us into thinking that economic freedom and what Amilcar Cabral called social liberation had arrived. We were wrong.

The decline of active civil society led to kwaito bashes and business meetings. It also led to a lack of dialogue in communities that had to figure out how to participate meaningfully in the plethora of opportunities that democracy promised. Without leadership and dialogue, communities simply waited, rather impatiently, for the state to deliver the goods. The focus was on material services, at the expense of the non-tangible public goods that social dialogue facilitates, including the building of a common vision and the realisation of happiness for everyone in a village, township or suburb.

It is unfortunate that we did not even discuss the elite pact sealed at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) talks. Frankly, many of us ordinary citizens know that we have a great Constitution, but we simply do not know what it actually says. We have been told about the many rights it provides for, but not the responsibilities. We have a faint idea of how the state was structured and designed to function, but often respond to it on the basis of what we think it should do, rather than understanding what it set out to do. We know that MPs and MPLs have constituencies, the needs of which they must advance, but we let them get away with poor service delivery because we have not informed ourselves about what this really means.

We elect local councillors, often on the basis of how they hoodwink us with sweet talk or what parties they belong to. Communities such as KwaMpumuza, uMtulwa and eBhambhayi simply elected school teachers, pastors and local business people as councillors because of their personal career successes rather than for their community-building skills. Political parties, all of them, have also erred by allowing their platforms to be a launching pad for personal careers. We do not realise that for public representatives to do their duty, we as citizens must actively hold them accountable.

Decisions were taken at Codesa about the principles governing our economy and development agenda. Very little of this is public knowledge, partly because we did not deliberate on it on public platforms. When izimbizo came, they focused on the technical detail of what government departments are doing, assuming that government and citizens already agree on the basics. What happened to the spirit of “not about us without us”, that defined civic action during the struggle?

My gripe is that there is very little discourse on many other issues that are fundamental to our future as a young democracy, such as poverty and inequality. Yet, the problem is the root of many social and political ills in this country. It predisposes many people to cruel and antisocial behaviour. Political opportunists have also found fertile ground in conditions of pover­­­ty to advance personal inter­ests. Cut-throat capitalists see profit in mushrooming slums and declining villages.

We ought to talk about these issues openly in order to avert public outbursts of anger, which are part of the psychology of poverty. It is time the poor were allowed to talk a lot more and the rich and powerful were made to listen.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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