Comment and Analysis

The Mahlabatini Declaration forty years on

Adam Schwarz

The ideals of the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith were integrated into the Constitution, but many are still waiting for their practical fulfillment.

The Constitution needs to be upheld for all citizens in South Africa. (Gallo)

Forty years ago in January my late grandfather, Harry Schwarz, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi met at Mahlabatini, in what was then Natal, to lay down the set of core principles, quickly dubbed by the press as the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith.

Through the declaration they proposed a halt to the increasingly volatile political situation in South Africa by establishing a road map for a negotiated settlement. They outlined both the approach and the broad substance of any future deal by affirming faith in a South Africa of "equal opportunity, happiness, security and peace for all its people".

Despite the embodiment of many of these values in South Africa's modern Constitution of 1996, the continued economic hardship of South Africa's majority and increasing signs of political instability warrant a re-examining of the 1974 declaration's vision for post-apartheid South Africa.

At a time when apartheid seemed irremovable, the declaration marked the first expression by acknowledged black and white political leaders that the principles of a peaceful transition of power and a nondiscriminatory society should determine the nation's future.

The declaration rocked the white political establishment, deepening bitter divisions between my grandfather's "Young Turks" wing of the United Party, who advocated a more aggressive political opposition to the National Party's racial policies, and that of the UP's "Old Guard" led by party leader Sir De Villiers Graaff.

The declaration led to the Young Turks' expulsion from the party, a move that proved instrumental in realigning opposition politics in South Africa and lay the electoral foundations for the present-day Democratic Alliance.

Forty years later, the principles embodied in the declaration no longer occupy the fringe of South African politics but some still fail to be acted upon.

At the time of the declaration, the very notion of negotiations to end South Africa's racial divisions was a distant prospect, with neither the National Party nor the ANC looking for peaceful solutions or dialogue.

The first provision affirmed that change must take place through "peaceful means".

The late Nelson Mandela's courageous leadership during the early 1990s steered South Africa away from the seemingly inevitable historical trend of ethnic conflicts to descend into civil war and is testament to his unique character and his understanding of history.

However, 20 years after the end of apartheid there are signs that my grandfather's and Buthelezi's fears of chronic violence in South Africa are being revived. For my grand­father, such fears were based upon his childhood experiences, notably of witnessing violence between Nazis and communists on the streets of his European birthplace, Cologne, during the 1920s and 1930s.

The xenophobic violence meted out against immigrants in 2008, the emerging trend of service delivery protests, the violence at the Marikana mines in 2012 and the astoundingly high crime rate should alarm all South Africans who value the stability that consolidated liberal democracies offer. Above all, it is a sign of the desperation of South Africa's economically disempowered peoples and a waning of confidence in the ballet box as an effective vehicle for improving and empowering lives.

The declaration's second and perhaps most relevant provision for the fundamental socioeconomic challenges that South Africa faces today is the need for the economy to"serve the needs of all able and willing to contribute … [to provide for] material and educational advancement".

My grandfather, who knew from personal experience as a penniless Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in South Africa that economic deprivation was just as limiting as deliberate racial inequality, later rearticulated this principle, stating: "Freedom is incomplete if it is exercised in poverty."

In the past two decades, South Africa has achieved an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of about 4%. But, with millions still living in shanty towns with no access to clean water or sanitation, a real unemployment rate of about 40% and widespread hunger on the streets, such growth figures do not provide any comfort to South Africa's majority.

Passive acceptance of what political commentator Eusebius McKeiser recently referred to as the"low expectations of a teenage democracy" only serves those who publicly claim to align themselves with the poor but, at best, fail to deliver even the most modest improvements in their lives.

At worst, political power and connection are the source of personal enrichment. Serving in government imposes an obligation to use such resources to increase opportunity for "all groups", as the Mahlabatini declaration affirmed.

In my grandfather's absence (he would have turned 90 in May this year), I hope that it will not take another 40 years for the full realisation of the Mahlabatini dream for the benefit of all South Africans.

Adam Schwarz is a politics graduate from the University of Nottingham and a student at the university's law school.

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