Guest Column

The dreams of Mahlabatini

2014-01-03 08:54

Forty years ago today my late grandfather Harry Schwarz and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi met at Mahlabatini, in what was then Natal, to lay down the set of core principles, quickly dubbed by the press as the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith.

Through the declaration they proposed a halt to the increasingly volatile political situation in South Africa by establishing a roadmap for a negotiated settlement.

They outlined both the approach and broad substance of any future deal by affirming faith in a South Africa of “equal opportunity, happiness, security and people for all its people” Despite the embodiment of many of the its values in South Africa’s modern Constitution of 1996, the continued economic hardship of South Africa’s majority and increasing signs of political instability, warrant a reexamining of the 1974 declaration’s vision for the post-apartheid South Africa.

At a time when apartheid seemed irremovable, the Declaration marked the first expression by acknowledged black and white political leaders that the principles of a peaceful transition of power and a non-discriminatory society should determine the nation’s future.

It demonstrated the possibility of common purpose between whites and black South Africans committed to ending apartheid through peaceful change.

The Declaration rocked the white political establishment, deepening bitter divisions between my grandfather’s “Young Turks” wing of the United Party, who advocated a more aggressive political opposition to the National Party’s racial policies, and that of the UP’s “Old Guard” led by party leader Sir De Villiers Graaff.

This ultimately led to the Young Turk’s expulsion from the party, a move that proved instrumental in realigning opposition politics in South Africa. Shortly thereafter, the Progressive Federal Party displaced the UP as the official opposition in the 1977 General Election, laying the electoral foundations for the present day DA. Forty years later, the principles embodied in the Declaration no longer occupy the fringe of South African politics, yet some still fail to be acted upon.

The passing of Nelson Mandela last month, reminds us of his leadership in the early 1990s in consolidating and negotiating a democratic future for South Africa that realised many provisions embodied in the Mahlabatini Declaration.

At the time of the Declaration, the very notion of negotiations to end South Africa’s racial divisions was a distant prospect, with neither the National Party nor the ANC calling looking to peaceful solutions or dialogue. The first provision affirmed that change in South Africa must take place through “peaceful means”.

This need for a negotiated settlement was soon emphasised by the Soweto Uprising two and a half years later. It would take another sixteen years for the ANC and the National Party to subscribe to a framework of dialogue.

Mandela’s courageous leadership during the early 1990s in steering South Africa away from the seemingly inevitable historical trend of ethnic conflicts to descend into civil war is testament to his unique character and his understanding of history.

Along with an insistence upon peaceful change, my grandfather and Buthelezi also recognised that no negotiated settlement could be considered legitimate without the full participation in negotiations of all who inhabited South Africa.

Once again, events saw South Africa beat the historical odds. Establishing the institutions to facilitate multi-party talks, such as CODESA and the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum in the early 1990s, was an accomplishment in itself.

But where South Africa occupies a unique place in history is where its oppressors and the oppressed jointly negotiated solutions for the future of their shared nation.

This event, where oppressors voluntary conceded power, is perhaps only matched in history by the dismantling of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbechev. Again, Mandela, amongst others such as FW de Klerk, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer deserve credit for actually achieving what was pleaded for at Mahlabatini in 1974.

However, 20 years after the end of apartheid there are signs that my grandfather’s and Buthelezi’s fears of chronic violence in South Africa are being revived.

For my grandfather, such fears were based upon his childhood experiences, notably of witnessing violence between Nazis and Communists on the streets of his European birthplace, Cologne, during the 1920s and 1930s.

The xenophobic violence against immigrants in 2008, the emerging trend of service delivery protests, the violence at Marikana mines in 2012, and the astoundingly high crime rate should alarm all South Africans who value the stability that consolidated liberal democracies offer.

Above all, it is a sign of the desperation of South Africa’s economically disempowered peoples, and a waning of confidence in the ballet box as an effective vehicle for improving and empowering lives.

The Declaration’s second, and perhaps most relevant provision to fundamental socio-economic challenges that South Africa faces today, is the need for the economy to “serve the needs of all able and willing to contribute… [to provide for] material and educational advancement”.

My grandfather, who knew from personal experience as a penniless Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in South Africa, that economic inequalities are just as limiting as deliberate racial inequality, later rearticulated this principle, stating, “Freedom is incomplete if it is exercised in poverty”.

In the two decades since apartheid labour restrictions on non-whites and crippling international sanctions were repealed, South Africa has achieved an average annual GDP growth rate of around 4%.

Yet, with millions still living in shanty towns with no access to clean water or sanitation, a real unemployment rate of around 40%, and widespread hunger on the streets, such growth figures does not provide any comfort to South Africa’s majority.

Passive acceptance of what Eusebius McKeiser recently referred to as the “low expectations of a teenage democracy” only serves those who publicly claim to align themselves with the poor but, at best, fail to deliver even the most modest improvements in lives.

At worst, political power and connection are the source of personal enrichment. Serving in government is not a license to help oneself to the resources of a nation, but rather, it imposes an obligation to utilise such resources to maximise opportunity for “all groups” as the Mahlabatini Declaration affirmed.

After 20 years of multiracial democracy, we cannot use the legacy of the past as a smokescreen for the calamitous failure of basic service delivery. Responsibility for the delivery of school books to children in 2014 lies in the hands of the government of 2014, not governments that came decades before it.

The Declaration called for a “Bill of Rights” which is now enshrined in the constitution and backed by a constitutional court. It undoubted embodies the rights of the individual, vowing a “democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law”.

The Mahlabatini Declaration also advocated constitutional proposals where South Africans can be “free from domination by any group over others”. The unitary power model of the 1996 Constitution is broadly a continuation of the 1983 Constitution, a rather than a federal model as provision four suggested at Mahlabatini. \

Testing the political functioning of the South Africa of 2014 against these principles, the return of the ANC or any political party to national government with majorities so large that any opposition can be ignored is unhealthy for democracy and not conducive for protecting against domination by one political grouping over another.

This danger is was recently highlighted by the passing of the Protection of State Information Act, where the national ANC leadership was safely able to reject both internal criticism from some ANC MPs as well criticism from external opposition parties.

Above all, my grandfather, believed in the inalienable right of political and social dissent, and the obligation to confront injustice. This arduous and often lonely task of standing against the wrath of public or political consensus is crucial to a functioning and robust democracy.

This Act weakens the ability of the opposition and journalists to carry out this critical democratic function, but, most importantly, it reflects an abuse of power by the majority over the minority, eroding principles born at Mahlabatini and now embodied in the 1996 Constitution.

In my grandfather’s absence (he would have turned 90 in May this year), I hope that it will not take another forty years for the full realisation of the Mahlabatini dream for the benefit of all South Africans.

 - Adam Schwarz, Politics graduate at university of Nottingham, and current student at Nottingham Law School.

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