The house that SA didn’t build

2015-02-22 17:00

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Over the past 10 days, nation-building took a few steps back. Here’s what we need to do to get back to the values enshrined in our Constitution

The events in and around Parliament over the past 10 days have left many of us in a state of deep despair and shock.

The question asked most often is: How did things become so bad, so quickly?

There has been a whirlwind of inappropriate behaviour, missteps and bad decisions.

From the violation of the convention not to disrupt the president’s speech, to the inexplicable decision to block communications in Parliament, from the heavy-handed treatment and beating of MPs by police brought into Parliament, to the eviction of an entire party in contravention of the rules of Parliament – and in spite of a recent judgment of the high court on the matter.

Julius Malema (centre) with fellow EFF MPs moments after being removed from the National Assembly after the opposition disrupted President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address. Picture: Liza van Deventer

Yet, even after these had reflected so poorly on both the quality and functioning of our democracy, the debate on the state of the nation address did not reflect one iota of contrition or concern about the state of affairs.

This was despite the fact that these things all happened in the very institution designed to carry the collective aspirations of all South Africans, to implement the “will of the people”, as the pinnacle of discourse, of free speech, of respect, of rules and conventions, populated by people who collectively carry our hopes for a better society.

If this is what we see televised at the pinnacle of our society, we should not be surprised at the burning of schools in Malamulele, or the razing of a library and clinic at Mohlakeng, or the brutal xenophobic attacks in Soweto, Atteridgeville and Khayelitsha, or the frequent reports of racist abuse in the Western Cape.

To get a complete picture, factor in the reports of the rape and abuse of babies and grandmothers alike, gang violence on the Cape Flats and elsewhere, the brutalisation of vulnerable people in their homes during robberies, police who fail to act even when they witness criminal activities, case files disappearing from courts and stories of open corruption.

All these are symptoms of the same problem – a damaged society, fragmenting even further because of our inability or reluctance to focus on transformation and transition.

Since April 1994, we have undertaken the periodic ritual of voting. While at the conclusion of every election we know which party secured more votes, the results don’t help us to understand the state of our nation – whether we are making progress on the promise of our Constitution or improving the quality of life of our people.

The results are a poor proxy for any measure of progress in bringing about true transformation and inclusion. They are important; democracy cannot exist without this periodic participation by the electorate. But it is one right among many. And we have to look at all the rights and responsibilities of transformation in democracy together.

We have the National Development Plan (NDP) that shows how we may improve the lives of our people. The NDP is referred to and even quoted by many leaders. But a plan is just a plan.

If you wished to build a house, you had a plan drawn up and you bought the necessary building materials, all you’d have is a plan, building materials and a hole in your bank balance.

You would still be homeless, regardless of how often you showed off your plan and building materials to your neighbours. To have the house, you need to organise a set of determined and measurable actions.

The more complex the plan, the better the quality of organisation needed.

Nation-building needs continuous and determined action, leadership and measurement. It is not about the occasional flag-waving at sports events, or about claiming sports heroes, or remembering the Mandela era.

It is a process by which we humanise all citizens. It is a process where we each earn and re-earn the respect of others.

We can do so by a series of acts and regular events designed to do precisely this. We must recognise that apartheid was a process of systematic dehumanisation.

We are negligent in recognising how important a process of humanisation is. Right now we recognise it by its absence. Among the strange behaviour we have witnessed recently – and sadly it has been highlighted in Parliament – is the confusing of rudeness with radicalism.

We have a values-rich Constitution, but we choose not to live it. It draws on a history of rights and describes the society that we must strive for.

It draws heavily on the Freedom Charter, which starts with the words: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.”

The will of the people is not merely expressed at the ballot box one day every five years. These are important milestones. But more importantly, the just and all-inclusive authority is what happens on the road between the milestones.

The just authority has to be earned and re-earned continually. It can only be earned in engagement with the electorate, in expressions of tolerance, togetherness and listening.

A people who cannot converse with each other or with their decision makers, and a state authority that is too proud to listen and engage, cannot possibly convene for the purpose of nation-building.

Just authority cannot merely be proclaimed by virtue of office – that is tyranny.

Nor can just authority comprise speeches of good intent, and the making of laws and regulations.

People are inclined to measure their exclusion from the justice of such authority by what they don’t have when their needs are not taken into account, when they’re not listened to and have no voice.

This phenomenon of creating outsiders is real, in spite of the good intentions of our Constitution.

Leadership in democracy is about a demonstrable change in behaviour that focuses on being seen and believed to be inclusive.

This will help to recast a sense of nationhood we don’t enjoy now, in spite of our having a Constitution, a territory, a Parliament, a flag, a defence force, a currency and a football team.

There is a strong appeal for leadership across all of society today. Leadership is not merely the occupation of an office of state – it has to be led by the needs of all in our society.

We have to restart with what is perceived to be the little things, like respect for one another. That in itself will show our humanity and drive a sense of unity.

Getting there will give us the energy and collective purpose to succeed at the big things – building a strong nation; a thriving and inclusive economy, and an active citizenry with a strong voice who believe their lives will improve because they care about their fellow citizens and are cared about in return.

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