Max du Preez

We have no idea what's next for South Africa

2015-11-17 08:00

Max du Preez

South Africa hasn’t been this tempestuous since the 1980s. But then there were two clear forces opposing each other, the UDF/ANC and the National Party government, and the struggle was simple: we demand a democracy in a unitary state.

This time it feels worse, more fluid and unpredictable. We knew by 1990 more or less where we were going, now we don’t. We have no idea what’s next, which is why the prophets of doom are thriving.

There are now three competing trade union movements, two strong opposition parties, politically several light years apart, and a multitude of pressure groups like those behind the student protests.

When matters got out of hand in the bad old days, the regime banned people, locked them up or beat them up. Mercifully, our society is much more open today: the constitution guarantees absolute freedom of speech and association, forbids detention without trial and makes hard-handed police action much more difficult. Jacob Zuma and his securocrats’s fingers may be itching to do something nasty to the Malemas and the student leaders, but they can’t.

Not a good place to be

The present instability is exacerbated by the fact that citizens have less and less respect for the president and his government, from whom we have seen precious little understanding of the present situation or leadership to deal with it.

Add to this the heightened political temperature as parties prepare for the coming local elections, and the significant decline in our economy and resultant growth in unemployment.

So, here at the end of 2015 we have to face the fact that the centre is under considerable pressure and the centrifugal forces growing in strength. This is not a good place to be.

It is in this environment that the government, the private sector, institutions like universities and even political parties have to figure out when to give in to popular pressure and when to draw a line in the sand and face the (often violent) consequences. Some of these decisions could influence our future for a very long time.

The ANC and the government had no plans to make tertiary education free – on the contrary, the state’s contributions to universities have been in decline in real terms for years. And yet within days they buckled under student pressure and first announced that fees would be cut to six percent, scrapping the increases altogether a few days later.

Universities walked the same road, first with symbols from the colonial and apartheid eras, then with student fees and then with outsourced workers.

Radical changes

The EFF started operating outside Parliament and used their mass muscle and fiery rhetoric to force the private sector to make radical changes. How should companies react? Show them a middle finger and then face violent protests and the occupation of business premises?

I think it is a time for cool heads, new ideas, new strategies, fearlessness and a healthy dose of pragmatism.

The Bill of Human Rights in our constitution should be the only rule-book as we prepare for a new deal between government, citizens, labour and business.

Many of the populist demands are not unreasonable. All needy and deserving students should be helped to get degrees - it’s a promise written into our constitution.

Names, monuments and statues honouring personalities from the previous era that give offence, should be moved or removed after consultation.

JSE-listed companies should, as the EFF is demanding, create ambitious share schemes for workers, make a bigger contribution to education and training and sponsor deserving students at university.

The management and rector of Stellenbosch University made the right proposal to change the university’s language policy. It is unbearable that, for instance, thousands of youngsters from neighbouring townships like Khayamandi and Mbekweni can’t attend the university right next to them because they’re not fluent in Afrikaans.

The later decision by the university council to hold back on this proposal and continue with Afrikaans as primary language of instruction in 2016 was a grave mistake and is bound to do great damage to the university.

Legitimate grievances

Expect much of the energy of student "revolutionaries" and politicians of the ANC and EFF to be channeled to Stellenbosch next year. I expect the pressure to be of such an unbearable nature that the proposed changes will have to be made mid-year or at the latest by the end of 2016, but in the time until then the university and its students are likely to be severely traumatised.

The Stellenbosch example is one of how not to deal with the new pressures in our society.

Perhaps the answer is for all us in this country to acknowledge that the protesters and demonstrators and agitators have many legitimate grievances and tending to them would make South Africa a better and more just society. They are demanding things we should have done over the last decades, but didn’t.

Only then can we start talking about where the line in the sand - the property clause in the constitution, the autonomy of universities, etc  - should be drawn.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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