Guest Column

Can SA reshape its politics and why does it matter?

2017-05-31 10:34

Pippa Green

Two years ago, the High Court in Pretoria ordered South African authorities to arrest Sudanese president Omar al Bashir in line with a warrant from the International Criminal Court. Al Bashir has been accused, among other things, of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide against civilians in Darfur.

Al Bashir had been in South Africa for an African Union summit. But in spite of an interim court order preventing his departure, the South African government allowed him to fly out at the very moment the court was ordering his arrest.

It was an abrogation not only of the courts and of the country’s international obligations – South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute – but of its own domestic law, passed in 2002, which aims “to ensure that South Africa conforms with its obligations set out in the Statute”. 

The contempt for the courts was in sharp contrast to the early years of our democracy when President Nelson Mandela chose to appear in a civil case, also in the Pretoria High Court, brought by the South African Rugby Football Union and its president Louis Luyt to oppose a commission of inquiry into South African rugby he had set up. 

Mandela was called by Luyt’s lawyers. The bombastic, right-wing businessman and rugby boss had done little to transform rugby into a more inclusive national sport in spite of the political generosity shown by Mandela who’d persuaded his own constituency to accept the “Springbok” name and emblem. 

The presiding judge, William de Villiers, had once supported the ban on black advocates from membership of the Pretoria Bar and had also ruled against an application by Steve Tshwete who, in the late ‘80s, was banished to a village in the Ciskei. Tshwete, ironically, became Mandela’s sports minister; back then he had applied for a relaxation of his banning order so he could earn a living in one of the “white” towns. 

In spite of their historic divisions, the judge and the president were unfailingly courteous to each other throughout the case. Mandela declined to take the seat De Villiers offered, standing through a lengthy cross-examination that aimed to prove he had not “applied his mind” to appointing the commission of inquiry.

Mandela lost the case. In his judgment, De Villiers described Mandela as having “intimidated’ Luyt’s lawyer, said his evidence was “less than satisfactory”, “completely unsatisfactory” or “not credible”. The judgment was subsequently overturned by the Constitutional Court but Mandela had already won, not only the rugby debate, but also on respect for the institutions of constitutional democracy.

“Nelson Mandela’s dream and vision was of building a democracy in which you would have independent institutions,” said respected international human rights lawyer and jurist Yasmin Sooka.

Sooka was one of 13 former Truth and Reconciliation commissioners I interviewed for a podcast series for Primedia, History for the Future, to assess the state of reconciliation in the country 20 years after the first sitting of the Human Rights Violations committee. 

She was speaking just a few months after the al Bashir case. “It’s really important for ordinary citizens to believe they can trust in the judiciary. It doesn’t help them when issues become so politicised,” she said. The president should have sanctioned his ministers who criticised the courts, even if government disagreed with them. “To demonize them is deeply problematic because it undercuts the value of our institutions.”

In the last decade many of those institutions – with the exception of the judiciary – have been systematically undermined: the prosecuting and law enforcement authorities, the public broadcaster, the State Owned Enterprises – all of which are supposedly owned by the public.

Also undermined has been accountability. The former truth commissioners I interviewed last year were gloomy about the state of reconciliation in the country and deeply angered by government. 

Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza dated the slip in accountability from the moment the ANC brought a court interdict to prevent the TRC handing over its final report because it had named some ANC members as perpetrators of human rights abuses – even though it recognised the concept of a just war.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu despaired at the huge public expenditure on the president’s private homestead in Nkandla: “You are not being anti-Zuma or anti-ANC, you are just saying, man, do you realise what the struggle was for? Do you realise that people… sacrificed and expected that by now they would have a government that was really sympathetic, not just verbally, but sympathetic in its actions: in the things that it did and the things that it didn’t do.”

These matters – weakening of institutions, corruption and waste, and the lack of accountability – bedevil the conversations we urgently need to have around policy.

For one thing, although the poor are better off than they were under apartheid thanks to social grants, we are still the most unequal society in the world. The independent national Research Project on Employment, Income Distrbution and Inclusive Growth (REDI3x3), headed by UCT economics professor Murray Leibbrandt, has found that income inequality is driven by the labour market with both earnings inequality and widespread unemployment playing a central role. 

REDI3x3 aims to provide evidence to policymakers grappling to find solutions to unemployment, poverty and inequality. It was initiated by Pravin Gordhan in his first incarnation as finance minister. Gordhan understood the pressing urgency of the social upheaval that burns beneath the surface of our angry political discourse.

Leibbrandt’s research shows inequality is entrenched across generations: if your parents were poor, there is a 90% chance that you will be poor. For many the “new South African dream” looks elusive.  

REDI3x3 researcher, University of Stellenbosch economist Servaas van der Berg, says the central driver of persistent inequality is our unequal education system.

This is not because we don’t spend enough on education – it’s the largest budget item after expenditure on interest. But in most non fee-paying schools – about 60% of our schools – the outcomes are abysmal.

Of those who started high school in 2004, says Van der Berg, only 60% reached matric; of those, only 37% passed, and 12% went to university. In short, of those who start school, only 4% get a degree. 

Children who go to the poorer schools do worse in reading and maths than their counterparts in Swaziland and Malawi, both poorer countries than ours.

In the language of economists, the returns to tertiary education are high. You earn about three times as much with a degree as you do with just a matric. Only about 7% of graduates are unemployed, compared with 66% of those without matric. 

It is no wonder the battles around university education have been so intense – it is still the principal ticket out of poverty. But the really forgotten majority are those who don’t make it through, or even to, matric. 

A sign of the tragedy of our increasingly poor governance was that at the moment when treasury, in 2015, found an extra R2 billion to subsidise the university fees of poorer students, President Jacob Zuma fired Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. The extra interest we had to pay on our debt as a result of a poorer credit rating, gobbled up almost that exact amount. And that was before we were rated junk status, which will push the cost of debt even higher.

So how does one begin to have the conversations we so desperately need around policy when our institutional framework is so battered? How does one engage over key findings of REDI3x3 that small firms, contrary to what the NDP hoped, are not creating more jobs and are instead becoming more capital intensive?

How do we begin to reshape our cities so that the poorest wage earners do not have to spend up to 40% of their incomes, as they do now, on transport? 

To change that, as the head of the African Centre for Cities, Professor Edgar Pieterse says, conversations at all levels of government will have to be had. There is a lot of unused government land – owned by national, local and provincial government, as well as parastatals – around the economic hubs of the city. Many unemployed people are simply too poor to even look for jobs, and our housing policies have reinforced sprawling apartheid spatial geography.

Who will lead these conversations we need to have? Can we reshape politics and for what purpose? It must be to combat these deep social fissures that threaten to tear the country apart. 

There are still senior policymakers at all levels of government who are committed to serious engagement with civil society and the research community to effect the changes we need to allow a post-apartheid generation to live a “South African dream”. Pieterse, for instance, is running a series of intense public policy workshops over a year involving  people from government, academia and civil society in a bid to change the face of Cape Town.

So perhaps it will have to be up to civil society to engage with local policymakers, teachers, unions, and communities to fix things area by area, district by district. The urgency, though, is to rebuild a culture of accountability, where institutions count, so we can start building a new country.

- Pippa Green is a journalist who is communications manager for REDI3x3. She writes in her personal capacity. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 


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