Can Ramaphosa Steer The South African Ship Towards The New Dawn?

By Prof Thuli Madonsela

As boat South Africa sails forward after refuelling on April 2019 under the captaincy of President Cyril Ramaphosa, we all need to reckon with the reality that we do not have another 25 years of experimenting and failing or promising and not honouring those promises. There are far too many people that are left behind and languishing in poverty, inequality and many social ills, including preventable and curable diseases. A democracy which, according to the World Bank, is the most unequal society in the world with the richest 10% owning 70% of the nation’s assets while the poorest 60% owns 7 percent of the nation’s asset, is simply not sustainable. If we don’t change the course, we risk fragility. Fortunately, the messaging from all the key political parties that got seats, suggests they realise the need to change gear fast, particularly to address poverty, inequality and socio-economic exclusion, sustainable economic growth, good governance and climate change.

Many will come to President Ramaphosa offering advice on the best way forward. Some of those will only be selling whatever will improve their fortunes with no regard for the reality facing this beautiful country with enormous potential. Some of those will tell him to just resuscitate the economic pathways we were on before the so-called lost years. They will say this combined with cleaning up state capture and building national institutions to combat corruption and other ills that nearly derailed democracy in the past is all we need. Others will say forget state capture for there’s no such. All you must do is fight White Monopoly Capital and pursue radical economic transformation, at the top of which is expropriation of land without compensation. 

The President and his team need discernment. Between these extremes lies the path of wisdom or the Holy Grail that will reboot South Africa’s economy, democracy and public trust in the democratic enterprise. To find that path, 

President Ramaphosa will have to be prepared to traverse unfamiliar territory. He will have to embrace the ambiguity and the discomfort that comes with not having cut out solutions. 

He may have to dig within himself and find his truth, that truth that drove him to build the National Union of Mine Workers to be a giant game change in labour relations in this country. He’ll have to look back to the days of designing the architecture of our democracy through the constitution-making process. That too had volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. Hope, wisdom, authenticity is among the principles that carried us through. At UWC, I opined that like President Mandela, President Ramaphosa has the rare chance of the architect being the builder or project manager of the building process. That helps once infuse the building process with the nuanced vision behind the architectural design often missed when the builder is not the architect. I further said President Ramaphosa will have to lean on all of us but be prepared to walk alone when need be. That again was what President Mandela did to move things forward.

President Nelson Mandela and then Chairperson of the Constituent Assembly, Cyril Ramaphosa

The simple challenge of our time as South Africa is to make democracy work and to work for all. 

As we move forward, we must remind ourselves that democracy the people chose democracy above the systems that preceded to regulate their communal affairs as a collective, because it was meant to involve all and work for all. It was to be later defined by Abraham Lincoln as the “government of the people by the people for the people”. We continue to promote democracy as the government of the people by themselves for themselves. We say democracy is the will of the people in action. We say one of the ways people express their will is by voting in public representatives to take on the mantle of being custodians of collective affairs of a nation or any co-existing group. We market voting as both a right and a responsibility and exercising it, a mark of good citizenship.

President Ramaphosa and many of us applauded South Africans who voted in South Africa’s 6th Democratic National Elections on 08 May 2019 because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

That democracy today is far more flawed today than it ever was is an understatement. For example, we have learned from the Independent Electoral Commission that effectively, only 28% of those eligible to vote did so. The truth is that the PR electoral system, the size of nations and the complexities of the modern state have weakened democracy. I’m certain that citizens of 5th century Athens would reject as democracy what we call democracy. Theirs was a simple system where literally every person had an equal chance to be selected through lots to join the council as a public representative. 

The executive feared the public as failure to comply with laws and mandates meant instant removal by the people and even death at times. Today it’s the people that tend to fear public representatives and other state functionaries.  The proportional representation which yields a better spread of political parties and interests has the fatal weakness of eroding direct accountability to the electorate. As a result, public representatives see themselves as party representatives and only fear their parties and not the people. In a PR system like ours at the national and provincial government, people neither get to choose who goes to Parliament in their name nor do they have any say on the recall of individuals from Parliament. At local government its better because there’s a dual system of PR and constituency positions. The truth though is that even with constituency elections popularity, as opposed to competence, often wins the day and money plays an important role in buying popularity.

Flawed as democracy may be though, it remains the best system there has ever been. At the Thuma Foundation for Democracy Literacy and Leadership, we believe the problem does not lie with democracy as a concept, it lies with our self-boxing and fossilized way we operationalise democracy oblivious to the outcomes. 

Truth be told, we ignore those who reject democracy at our own peril. It’s often said those that chose not to vote are apathetic. What I have learned from my interactions with young people and other disaffected groups that tend to choose not to vote, is that they are not apathetic. They want a governance system that works for them and other marginalised groups. Their refusal to vote is a rejection of democracy as we know it but not a communication of disinterest in politics. The way I see it is that there is no such thing as youth despondency. Those who refuse to vote to refuse to play in and by the rules of a system they believe is stacked against them. But that does not mean they choose not to play. They choose to invent their own game and play by their own rules.

Many of the left behind communities believe the only way to effect change is to work against the system. They believe in forcing the system through protest and related action to adopt a non-elitist and more egalitarian agenda for change the way we did during apartheid. You’ll hear such views when you engage with #FeesMustFall activists.  They argue that the system is stacked against the poor and historically marginalised groups and that using its tools can’t dismantle it. You get a lot of such views when you engage with students as was the case when I gave the Annual (Archbishop) Thabo Makgoba Public Lecture at THE University of Western Cape (UWC)UWC recently. Similar views were also expressed during our monthly Social Justice Café, which is a social justice discourse forum at Stellenbosch University.

Even those that keep voting for parties or persons that fail continuously them are not ignorant people. They don’t vote with their hearts with no consideration for progress regarding inclusive socio-economic development as some believe. They are not oblivious or indifferent to the corruption and state capture that insidiously undermine such progress. Most of the people know what they want and don’t want. They don’t want corruption. They don’t want landlessness and poor service delivery. They reject directionless service that does not better their lives or free their potential as promised by the Constitution. They vote on the hope that things will change. 

However, hope betrayed is worse than hope never encouraged. When I was at the World Justice Forum recently, a colleague alerted me to United States (US) communities burning things in the 50s after the hope betrayed when the post-civil rights movement period did not yield better lives or fortunes.  The cracks in social cohesion in our country don’t augur well for sustainable democracy, the rule of law and peace. Progress must be visible soon after the elections or at least by the local government elections in 2021. Otherwise extremist vultures are circling. Hope rebuffed and despair provides the fertile ground they breed on. If there is injustice somewhere, there can’t be sustainable peace anywhere.

How do we ensure progress and whose move is it?

Each generation has an opportunity and responsibility to make the next chapter of its people and the world a better one. President Nelson Mandela’s generation saw the key imperative its time as the delivery of democracy. That democracy was delivered together with a certain level of freedom. What will this generation deliver? Palesa Mosa in whose honour we have named the Musa Plan for Social Justice expects democracy to expand the frontiers of freedom for her, including freedom from hunger, poverty, indignity and corruption. 

What can be leveraged to move the needle?  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present a window of opportunity to ignite united action and fuel a sense of urgency particularly regarding poverty, hunger, inequality, climate change and institutional strengthening for functional democracy and peace. We also have the continent’s Agenda2063. The key lodestar, of course, is our Constitution. Celebrated globally, our constitution outlines a clear vision of society (Preamble), the values to underpin the building of that society from the ashes of apartheid and colonialism (Chapte1); the basic entitlements of the people that should be enjoyed progressively by all as we progress to the new society (Chapter 2); the character of the state needed to be the custodian of the journey (section 195, 96 , 136 and 237); and accountability mechanisms to correct those that go astray (Include Chapters 4, 8 and 9).  At the core of our constitution is transforming our society to embrace the dignity and equalise life chances of all. It ultimately seeks to create a democracy that doesn’t only work but works for all. 

Will Captain Ramaphosa help boat South Africa deliver these freedoms? Will he lead to making democracy work for? But he cannot do it alone. The government cannot handle the herculean task ahead alone. If you agree with me that we are in the same boat, can government count on business, society and the international community to join hands against poverty, inequality, bad governance and other current ills, like spider webs combining to tie up a lion? All hands-on deck will be needed to ensure that the promise of a freed potential and improved quality of life for all has immediate meaning to all in all 4392 municipal wards? 

But the President and his colleagues are ultimately the ones to make the hard choices. That includes accepting that state capture exists and must be rooted out if we want a democracy that works for all. The choices must include accepting that nothing else matters to those that are hungry, angry and socio-economically excluded. They must include accepting that if we want peace, we must work for justice for all. For the President, the choice must include leaning on all Democrats and peace-loving people but being prepared to walk alone if need be.

Prof Thuli Madonsela

Law Trust Chair in Social Justice, Stellenbosch University

Founder: Thuma Foundation and Social Justice M-Plan


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