Can South Africa’s civilisation of national democracy sustain itself?

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Let us get back to the question of the day: Can South Africa’s civilisation of national democracy sustain itself?
Let us get back to the question of the day: Can South Africa’s civilisation of national democracy sustain itself?


In what way can South Africa’s national democracy be characterised as a civilisation?

To answer this question, we fall back to the basic law of the land, which guarantees, among other things, that:

• Liberal political rights such as free and fair elections, inviolability of human dignity arising from the very intrinsic value of being human, and generally the right to be treated with respect irrespective of age, ability, status, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation;

• A profound social humanism that enjoins access to basic services including potable water, sanitation, education, health, housing and other elements of social security;

• Freedom of trade, occupation and profession without regard to racial and other identities;

• The right to own property, but with the proviso that it can be expropriated for “a public purpose and in the public interest”;

• Environmental justice, ie clean air and an environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations; and

• The right of access to information, as well as freedom of association, expression and religion.

Now, with 26 years of lived experience, a restatement of these principles may justifiably sound trite. This is partly because the civilisational character of this constitutional dispensation cannot be drawn from a contrast with what was.

It relates to the philosophical foundation of the new society, to aspiration and to praxis over a short period of some 26 years. It entails the freedom of those oppressed and marginalised under colonialism, but also the liberation of the oppressor.

In other words, South Africa’s liberators are required to manage and lead both the erstwhile oppressed and oppressors.

The efforts to extend access to basic services have been commendable – mostly as a result of government intent and action, but in some instances also at the cajoling of civil society and the courts.

There coexists within South Africa an advanced metropolis and a poverty-stricken colony. It is the combination of these factors that render the South African social experiment not so much unique or exceptional, but rather a laboratory of humanity as it seeks to address social challenges that afflict most societies across the globe – the intersection primarily of race, class and gender.

The efforts to reverse this historical injustice – to create an antithesis of internal colonialism – is South Africa’s civilising mission of the current age. The attainment of the ultimate constitutional objective should result in the emergence of a “new and unique civilisation”.

Post-1994 advances

Since 1994, the changes, particularly at the level of the political superstructure, had to be immediate, with brief transitional mechanisms. The socioeconomic transformation can only take place progressively.

Studies indicate that the composition of the various strata of society shows a stubborn trend of over-representation of African people (more than 90%) among the chronically poor. But the African middle class expanded rapidly from 47% of the total in 2008 to 64% in 2017. The elite, in the highest income category, are “more homogenously white”, although the African proportion of this category grew from 14% in 2008 to 22% in 2017.

In tertiary education, enrolled students have almost doubled since 1994. And while African students were less than half of the student population then, they now accounty for about 71%.

There has also been progress in black ownership – including through institutional funds – while there has been movement, though pedestrian, at board, management and skilled levels in the private sector.

The efforts to extend access to basic services have been commendable – mostly as a result of government intent and action, but in some instances also at the cajoling of civil society and the courts. Over the years, the voice of these institutions has grown due to weaknesses in the pace and quality of service provision in terms of potable water, health, educational infrastructure, electricity and so on.

This is partly because of the weakened capacity of the state and corruption, which became systemic over the past decade. Combined with new instances of malfeasance related to Covid-19, this has massively undermined the legitimacy of the state.

The failings of our political parties

As many have emphasised, political organisation and leadership are critical to the sustenance of a civilisation.

We have referred to the country’s constitutional dispensation and the generations of rights that it enshrines. Let us briefly reflect on the party-political terrain and related dynamics.

Read: Now is the time to celebrate our constitutional democracy

What is of concern currently is the rise of narrow identity politics – the tendency quite opportunistically and crudely to retreat into racial laagers as the primary form of mobilisation. While in the early post-1994 period many of the large parties seemed to appreciate that success in sustaining the process of change depended on consciously avoiding setting the tinder of social discontent alight, this seems to have somewhat dissipated. To mix metaphors, the pressure cooker is being heated without any escape hatch for the rush of steam.

Recent pronouncements by a leader of the Freedom Front Plus calling for an “independent Western Cape” constitutes an extreme manifestation of this. Faced with the challenge from its right, the DA seems bent on playing in that terrain – to try to retain the bird in hand in terms of electoral support from conservative white voters, instead of pursuing two in the bush.

This is reflected, for instance, in its recent resolution rejecting the use of racial categories as a means to identify and uplift the disadvantaged, who are almost exclusively those who suffered under apartheid’s racist policies or their lasting impact, as well as the dog-whistle that farm murders are a hate crime.

The leadership of the EFF has historically sought crudely to exploit racial tension, but it seems to be even outdoing itself recently. The demonstrations and pronouncements around the recent Senekal farm murder and the alleged racist incident at Brackenfell High School reflect this tendency. Added to this have been its conduct in the national legislature and recent pronouncements against the police.

At the same time, the ANC, through some of the resolutions from its 2017 national conference – particularly on the nationalisation of the SA Reserve Bank and expropriation of land without compensation – seems to be inspired by a desire to cover its “left” flank on “radical economic transformation”.

On these and other issues, the political parties face an existential question about capacity to lead all of society, even if sectoral interests may diverge.

In addition, the ANC, as the governing party, faces a more critical challenge about whether it can renew itself and society, and at the same time maintain unity within its ranks.

This question arises also in the context of massive open and clandestine resistance by beneficiaries of corruption and state capture to the renewal efforts. To use biblical fables, two syndromes worsen this situation: the first one is the Samsonite suicidal mission to want to collapse the temple with all inside; and the second one is about the danger of mass exhaustion and impatience in the renewal trek to the so-called Promised Land.

Given the pain that is endured in such a journey, some get tempted to demand a return to their place of enslavement. Further, through actions that appear militant on the surface, we may end up sabotaging the renewal project.

The role of the recovery plan

And so, given all these challenges, shall the nascent civilisation of our national democracy follow the polities of the erstwhile Nile settlements, Mapungubwe, Zimbabwe and Machu Picchu: to survive largely as a riddle to future generations and a footnote of history?

The economic reconstruction and recovery plan announced by government in October contains major interventions required to extricate the economy from the current rut.

As we all know, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy is expected to contract by about 8.2% this year, the fiscus is heavily constrained, job losses for the year are topping more than 1 million and the provision of many basic services is under strain.

And so our task is not just about correcting small weaknesses and introducing minor adjustments to clear binding constraints, it is fundamentally about the need to pick up a political economy battered by a once-in-a-century event.

Read: Economic revival lies in us being proudly SA and buying local

The challenge is two-pronged: firstly, to stem the decline that was already manifest before the pandemic and, secondly, to introduce drastic measures that lift society on to a higher trajectory of growth and development.

The elements of the plan are widely known and do not require detailed treatment: ensuring energy security; aggressive infrastructure programmes premised on investment by both the public and private sectors; building a thriving industrial base that creates jobs; a mass public employment programme; macroeconomic policies that include strengthening revenue collection, incentives for job creation and tax measures that encourage investment in non-consumptive expenditure; and focus on the green economy, food security and the revival of the tourism sector. Critical in this regard is strengthening the capacity and ethical fibre of the state with a pilot agency at the centre that has the authority to integrate all elements of government work and ensure focused implementation.

As we clamour for quick wins and measurable objectives, we should not lose sight of the conceptual questions facing South African society by burying our heads in a welter of detail.

There are many issues that can be debated, including whether the stances on fiscal expenditure and monetary policy are bold enough.

Further, in terms of civilisational discourse and development of productive forces, there are many issues that require consideration as a formal part of the plan.

These include the hydrogen economy and fuel cell technology; developing manufacturing capacity for supplies to infrastructure programmes in South Africa and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa; taking advantage of global efforts towards better management of supply chains and integrating these initiatives into global value chains; and more systematic utilisation of fourth industrial revolution technologies.

There could also be better support for informal businesses, taking advantage of the registration processes that took place during higher levels of the Covid-19 lockdowns – and these businesses are owned mostly by women with daring and initiative.

What is most critical is that the reconstruction and recovery plan emerged from consultative processes, and it forms an important part of the social compact that South Africa requires.

However, the circle of participants in these processes can be expanded to ensure better inclusivity.

For instance, it is not quite clear why the second-largest trade union federation is not part of these processes – it would seem by dint of some bureaucratic gatekeeping in the National Economic Development and Labour Council.

The debate on these and other issues should continue, but this should happen as we implement the agreed measures.

What I wish to emphasise is the need for coalescence around essence. In other words, as we clamour for quick wins and measurable objectives, we should not lose sight of the conceptual questions facing South African society by burying our heads in a welter of detail.

The democratic state must lead

The first one is about the character of the social system – if it is indeed true that we are managing a capitalist system, then we need to agree on a conceptual underpinning to the social compact we seek to build: how we can re-engineer an economic structure inherited from colonialism. An analysis of the injunctions contained in the Constitution points towards a combination of a developmental state that leads all of society in pursuing consistently high rates of growth, and social democracy underpinned by comprehensive redistributive measures.

The second element of essence is about the core objective of socioeconomic policy. The Constitution indirectly identifies a minimum standard of living below which no South African should sink.

Elements of a decent standard of living are outlined in the National Development Plan and they include nutrition, housing, water, sanitation and electricity, education, healthcare, safety and security, education, employment, recreation and leisure, and a clean environment. There should be serious dialogue on this concept of a decent standard of living as a national objective.

The third element of the essence is about the leadership role of the state. Aside from its responsibility to lead in crafting a vision and to mobilise society in its implementation, there will be moments when decisive leadership is required. When consensus eludes the partners, a democratic state has to weigh in and make the difficult choices. Pursuit of absolute consensus can only result in the lowest common denominator and minimal progress.

Let us cite, for purposes of illustration, some crude examples of sacrifices that may be required under current conditions:

• For the business community, in what way can the Covid-19 winners such as data providers and those who develop and handle vaccines – including the syringes, glass vials and fridges – give back to society? Or should there be a global windfall tax that can be used to improve data access and public healthcare?

• With regard to workers, given that the facilitators of state capture cleverly and carelessly extended populist benefits to employees within some state institutions, how does society deal with the conundrums in relation to public service pay, and an unsustainable personnel budget at the SABC and other state-owned enterprises?

• For civil society and communities, we need to ask ourselves whether we should expect the judiciary and security agencies to meet their mandate in the face of resistance if we do not contribute through mass mobilisation by helping to disrupt the disruptors. Further, can communities expect uninterrupted services such as electricity if there is no commitment to pay when we use more than the guaranteed free basic service?

These are random examples to underline the point that leadership in the context of social compacting also means accepting sacrifices and having the courage to communicate difficult decisions to constituencies.

Let us get back to the question of the day: Can South Africa’s civilisation of national democracy sustain itself?

In a roundabout way, the answer from this exposition is yes, but this is more as a function of social agency – of citizen activism and leadership acumen – and cannot be a quirk of fate.

In this regard, the words of African leaders at the recent Tana Forum come to mind – and this is that our aim should not be to “build back better”, but to “build forward differently”.

In that way, we will be able to reach for Chief Albert Luthuli’s ideal that: “Somewhere ahead there beckons a civilisation which will take its place in God’s history with other great human syntheses: Chinese, Egyptian, Jewish, European. It will not necessarily be all black, but it will be African.”

As we all strive together to emerge from the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic, we dare to remember that we are our own liberators!

Netshitenzhe is the executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. This is an edited version of the Mapungubwe Annual Lecture, which he delivered this week.

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