Analysis

Disgruntled South Africans are showing signs of powering up

Kim Wale

Trust in governance institutions and leaders is declining steadily and could signal the burgeoning of a more critical citizenship, writes Kim Wale.

Chris Hani's legacy could help expand the possibilities for reconciliation in South Africa. (Gallo)

Trust is crucial in reconciliation. In its absence, fear and alienation, which are not conducive to healing social relationships, thrive.

But not all forms of trust are equally beneficial to building South African society. When it comes to the political trust forged between citizens and leaders, a healthy degree of mistrust may be more conducive to reconciliation.

The South African Reconciliation Barometer survey by the Institute for Justice and Recon­ciliation has recorded a steady and consistent decline in citizen trust and confidence in governance institutions and leaders.

Though this may partly signify the frustration felt by citizens about the corruption, injustice, inequality and poverty they witness and experience, it could also signal the burgeoning of a more critical citizenship.

A healthy mistrust of leaders could drive a deeper and more radical reconciliation, based on a ­critical citizenship unafraid to speak out against injustices committed by those in power.

Last month, South Africa remembered the death in 1993 of Chris Hani who, as an Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) fighter and commander, had gained the respect of militant comrades fighting for freedom. When they were reluctant to allow the process of a negotiated transition to play out, he won their trust and convinced them the ANC was on the right track.

His legacy could help to expand the possibilities for a radical reconciliation. Hani is remembered for his desire to connect with a struggle from below, combined with his confidence in challenging authority figures within the movement. He nearly got executed in the late 1960s for being part of a group objecting to the ways of the MK leadership. He was a reluctantly exiled soldier who was committed to returning to fight in South Africa, making him a natural ally of the militants inside the country doing just that.

When the ANC took over as the new government in 1994, it was positioned and internalised as the hero and saviour of the disenfranchised masses. Paternalistic statements that presented the ANC as a parent to the people encouraged a strong relationship of dependency, based on blind trust in the liberation party turned government.

In the 1980s, under the broad banner of the United Democratic Front, many black South Africans had found the courage to stand united.

The violence the apartheid state used against them was considerable but, in the early 1990s, thanks to the efforts of Hani and others, they were convinced to be patient and wait for change to come.

But, today, for many, the violence of poverty and inequality continues to plague their lives. Their patience is wearing thin as their trust in leaders dwindles.

The trust won by the ANC as the liberation party was transferred to state institutions, playing a key role in facilitating peaceful transition. But, over time, it has not been able to deliver the deep transformation that is required and, in the process, we have lost the power of a united and critical citizenship that grew in the struggle from the grass roots.

This drop in trust could be the first step in the emergence from dependency and paternalism and the development of a critically empowered citizenship. Note that the 2013 barometer shows that, of all government institutions, the public protector enjoys the highest confidence rating of citizens, no doubt because she represents someone who is not afraid to speak out against authority.

Trust was required for the initial stage of reconciliation to take place; for us to move from violence to peace. But if peace is maintained by prescriptive, paternalistic leadership, reconciliation is bound to fail.

As the scales of blind trust fall from the eyes of citizens, radical reconciliation may take on a new life, driven by active, empowered citizens unafraid to stand against injustice at the hands of distant leaders and institutions.

Kim Wale leads the Reconciliation Barometer project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Visit www.ijr.org.za.

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