It is all too easy to be distracted by the debates over the success or otherwise of the March 20 national shutdown, become intrigued by the images and the meanings of Julius Malema and Carl Niehaus marching shoulder to shoulder, reflect on the racialised patterns of opening and closing, emerging and retreating.
While not dismissing such lines of enquiry, I for one found myself enjoying Human Rights Day with what I can only describe as a modest afterglow – left by the sense I had on March 20 of a capable state and a responsible citizenry. Instead of absent police officers (our daily experience and our memory of the nightmare that was July 2021), we enjoyed what many mature democracies would regard as a strong and visible police presence. Instead of security forces unleashing violence on communities, as we saw during the first Covid-19 lockdown, we saw order and restraint. Instead of protest spiralling into unrestrained public violence, we enjoyed images reminding us of that long tradition in our country of disciplined protest action.
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Yes, we are capable. We can still find the will to do what is required. We can deliver. The afterglow I was experiencing also came from the noticeable decrease in load shedding at Eskom in recent days. The afterglow came from the memory of how government executed its public health mandate in that unprecedented first year of the pandemic. The afterglow came also from recent encounters with the SA Revenue Service, which is clearly fixed after years of brokenness and is now providing the service envisaged for it in the Constitution.
We can. But too often we choose not to. We are not a broken state, yet. Routinely now, gangster formations join hands with the corrupted to loot and to unravel and to paralyse. In July 2021 we saw what amounted to an insurrection in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng and yet still no one has been prosecuted for their role in it.
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An argument has been made by government ministers in the security cluster that it would be too costly to regularly run security operations such as the one we saw during the EFF national shutdown. It made me wonder if a study has been conducted on the cost of inaction against a general sense of insecurity felt by citizens and tourists. The cost of lives lost as a result of violent crime, the loss of dignity from sexual crimes. The cost on our reputation as a destination of choice in terms of tourism. The cost of young lives ravaged by drugs. Businesses are finding new homes in countries safer than ours. The cost of inaction is, by far, much higher than we can imagine.
If this historical moment in our country has any meaning, then it is this, for far too long, we have lingered; for too long, we have waited for moments of crisis before acting decisively. For too long, it has taken extraordinary challenges to stir us into what is regarded as ordinary action in mature democracies. The time for focused and sustained endeavour is now.
All of us need the inspiration of a Nelson Mandela and other exemplary leaders of his calibre, to not give up on the dream, to keep working hard at turning it into reality and to hold those in power accountable day in and day out. What we witnessed from the state on March 20 proved that what is missing is not resources, a Cabinet reshuffle, a different history but the intention and commitment to follow through on that intention. We are capable. The country of Madiba’s dreams is still possible.
* Hatang is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation