/ 21 June 2012

Walking over the wounded

There is a cruel irony in our celebrating 36 years of youth leadership that was triggered by the rejection of “gutter education” while we witness a post-apartheid education system failure.
There is a cruel irony in our celebrating 36 years of youth leadership that was triggered by the rejection of “gutter education” while we witness a post-apartheid education system failure.

The ANC and its alliance partners’ rhetoric about the need for a “second transition” is the closest we have come to an acknowledgement by the governing elites of their failure to govern. A democratic government that has presided over 18 years of system failure in four core functions – education, health, safety and security, and employment creation – should expect no further support from citizens. Why, then, does a society as sophisticated as ours, with a commitment to human rights, tolerate this massive failure?

There is a cruel irony in our celebrating 36 years of youth leadership that was triggered by the rejection of “gutter education” while we witness a post-apartheid education system failure. The most elementary functions have proven too much for successive governments. The present government cannot provide learning and teaching facilities or the learning materials needed in the majority of schools. The basic function of appointing teachers and principals is beyond its capacity in key poor provinces. Low standards for both teaching and learning cover up an inability to manage the performance of teachers and other state employees. The education system now generates poverty and inequality and destroys the dreams of young people on a vast scale.

As the Citizen Movement, our view is that only a people numbed by “woundedness” would tolerate what we see in our country today. South Africans, black and white, are deeply wounded by the legacy of racism, sexism and engineered inequality over the past three centuries, which the past 18 years has failed to transform.

The majority of black people suffer from a deep-seated inferiority complex that affects rich and poor. The humiliation of being told that one is inferior is deeply wounding and infuriating. The lack of self-respect this engenders leads to inward-directed anger – domestic violence, community vigilantism, public violence and other self-sabotaging behaviour.

The denial of mistakes and failures is a common feature of woundedness. Wounded people also tend to be subservient to authoritarian leaders.

Superiority complex
Many white people still suffer from a superiority complex; they believe they are entitled to more material benefits than black citizens by virtue of their superior qualities and hard work. Many are paralysed by guilt about past racist practices and feel they have no right to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens, including criticising majority black governments. The tendency of deferring to authority is strong and deep-seated among white people too. Neither superiority complex nor guilt helps transformation in South Africa.

The lessons of history are clear: if you think of yourselves as helpless and ineffectual, you become victims of despotic governments that become your master.

The ANC rhetoric of the “second transition” represents a real danger to our constitutional democracy by further silencing criticism. It reinvents history by suggesting that a two-stage transformation was part of the settlement in 1994, with the first stage focused on political and the second on socioeconomic justice. Supporters of this “second transition” make assertions, without evidence, that the Constitution is an obstacle to transformation and social justice.

They deliberately tap into the emotive issue of land reform, charging that the Constitution prevents reform by, among other things, a clause that does not even exist, namely “willing buyer, willing seller”. This is a classic case of a fallacy repeated often enough to become fact in many minds. In most parts of South Africa, the state is the largest landowner, but there is no capacity in the government to turn this into an advantage of transformation.

Patterns of human settlement have not changed in 18 years because there is little appetite or capacity for programmes to dismantle apartheid geography. The little land reform that has taken place is collapsing under monumental execution failures that leave new black owners without the means to create sustainable livelihoods, let alone the transition to commercial farming. The obstacle to land reform is not the Constitution.

Citizens must mobilise
The threat by some alliance leaders to change the Constitution to remove these supposed obstacles to social justice is a real danger. Citizens must mobilise, on the basis of facts and lessons learned in post colonial settings on our continent, to protect the Constitution, which is the ultimate guarantor of democracy and social justice. It has been the only tool available to poor communities to compel the government to perform, be it in the provision of HIV/Aids treatment, school textbooks in Limpopo, or the appointment of teachers in the Eastern Cape.

Remember that it took the silence of educated middle and upper-class Zimbabweans to allow Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF to destroy the economy in the name of destroying imperialism.

We must face up to the real and major risks to our future. The failure to transform our education, health and social development systems is generating poverty and inequality. Inequality is a threat to any society: both rich and poor suffer its consequences. Take the case of education in which, despite a R236-billion budget (20% of government expenditure) the quality of outcomes is worse than that of some of the poorest countries in Africa, such as Malawi and Swaziland. The devastating impact of these failures on our human capital undermines our ability to compete in today’s economic environment. Our low levels of economic growth and the unsustainably high levels of unemployment, especially among the youth (estimated at more than 60%), are a direct result of these failures.

Elites, including the teachers, nurses and public officials serving in the failed systems, have basically bought themselves out of these systems. They rely on private services. Poor people are left to fend for themselves and made to pay for the luxurious lifestyles the rich enjoy. Unequal societies pay a heavy price in status completion, one of the structural hierarchies that evolve in such settings. South Africa pays more for banking services, mobile technology and food and beverages, as well as clothing, partly because of the status attached to expensive goods. The state’s failure to regulate is the result of a combination of conflicts of interest and incompetence by officials in these entities.

Our inability to establish a professionally competent public service, as required by the Constitution, has had a devastating impact on the quality of governance. It retards any change in the lives of the most vulnerable. Those passionate about social justice, as all of us should be, must focus on the importance of good governance, professionalism and intolerance of incompetence and corruption. Poor people are disproportionately affected by corruption and public service failures.

Studies all over the world show that corruption is a tax on poor people. Bribes and the withholding of services weigh heavily on them. Corruption and maladministration have reached levels that now define our political culture. President Jacob Zuma said in Parliament that there was nothing wrong with politicians doing business with the government. He is clearly not in touch with the reality of how such insider trading has left poor people destitute – no roads, no water, no schools. Politicians serving their own business interests should have no place in a constitutional democracy.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan puts the cost of this insider trading by politicians and officials at R30-billion annually. The auditor general’s report a few weeks ago said that public officials at local, provincial and national levels simply ignored adverse audit reports and repeat offenders were the order of the day. The report detailed serious problems in supply-chain management and the security and accuracy of government information. He found that people in key positions were not equipped to do their jobs. A culture of impunity has become entrenched in our public service over the past 18 years.

The only defence poor people have against such impunity, and against disrespect for citizens, is the Constitution. In a constitutional democracy the citizen is sovereign. Citizens have a duty to assert their basic rights and exercise their responsibilities to hold those in public office accountable. The Citizens’ Movement for Social Change South Africa, working with other like-minded social justice agencies, calls on all citizens to be vigilant in the face of threats to our freedom. We dare not allow those who peddle fallacies about our Constitution to rob poor people of their only reliable defence.

South Africans need to complete the healing process started by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and focus on the psychosocial wounds of our nation. We need to link hands – black and white, men and women, young and old, rich and poor  and start healing ourselves as a nation. There are wonderful initiatives led by civil society and individuals wrestling with this challenge; what is needed is to identify, coalesce, galvanise and amplify these efforts. We need to generate momentum and demand change in the quality of governance. Middle- and upper-class citizens must stand ready to create pooled resources to speed up the elimination of poverty.

The consolidation of our democracy requires citizens, the corporate sector, civil society organisations and the government to work together to tackle the challenges of transforming South Africa into a success story. We cannot succeed by pulling down the very pillars on which our democracy is built.

Mamphela Ramphele is a founder of the Citizens’ Movement for Social Change South Africa