How do we activate peacefully for change?

2017-10-01 06:02
Jonathan Jansen

Jonathan Jansen

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I do not know of another African country with more civil society organisations that owe no allegiance to the government, the private sector or any authority that determines what they can do, say or believe. This is vital for a democracy, and especially for a country that had not known democracy for more than three centuries.

We forget that the relationship between the South African state and its people has always been authoritarian in character, and expressed through practices deeply ingrained in our culture, such as censorship, corruption and the muzzling of the press. Our default reaction to a crisis is to impose more laws and regulations, as if the strong arm of power will eliminate difference or subdue dissent.

When a black nationalist government took over from a white nationalist government, its impulses for authoritarian, top-down governance were the same as those of its predecessors.

Members of the governing party, then and now, are pursued relentlessly if they break with the official line. Troubling media questions, as before, cannot be answered because of the sub judice rule. Tyrants are protected even when their foul deeds are on display for all to see.

This rich network of organisations in post-apartheid society is our saving grace as a young democracy. While we have inherited a culture of autocracy, we are also learning the habits of democracy – to resist oppression, to demand openness and to require fairness. We rush to chapter 9 organisations at the slightest hint of the abuse of human rights.

Whether it is Equal Education showing up the colossal failure of the state to deliver on decent school infrastructure for children of the poor; or the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse resisting the new toll regime; or the Treatment Action Campaign insisting on affordable health treatment for women and children, South Africa has a healthy democracy 23 years after the end of apartheid.

Our courts are not captured and our citizens participate vigorously in all media, expressing themselves on everything from corruption in government to the abuse of women.

But we dare not be complacent.

On the one hand, “power concedes nothing without a demand”, said a wiser voice. At the same time, we must not confuse social activism on the streets with democratic practices in our institutions.

Our homes are still violent towards women and children; our communities are wracked by everyday violence; and our campuses are becoming more and more intolerant, even violent. In expressing resistance we too often draw on the same tactics of silencing, bullying, demeaning and even assaulting those who think differently. All-too-familiar routines of violence are deeply embedded within our ways of thinking and practising activism.

I look forward to engaging with delegates on this and related topics at the upcoming Brand Summit SA in November.

Jansen is former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and will speak at Brand Summit SA in November.

For details, please visit

Read more on:    brand sa  |  democracy

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