When President Jacob Zuma joked with “those who’ve just been born” that the Congress of the People of 1955 was “a different congress of the people” — referring to the breakaway opposition party Cope — it was the only light moment of his brief and bland opening address of the two-day Summit on Social Cohesion in Kliptown’s Walter Sisulu Square on Wednesday.
But in this case, bland does not mean uninteresting or inexplicit. If only for the wrong reasons, the president was riveting and illuminating. His address, largely about the appropriateness of the location, was a long list of heritage projects, the highlight of which was the nugget that “many point to the success of the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup, especially with regards to the promotion of unity and national pride, as an example of what a united South Africa should be”.
With that statement, the president opened the arena for the early bout of fisticuffs by politicians eager to score points, and perhaps played into the hands of those who felt that the convening of the summit had more to do with instilling some homogeneity in the national psyche than with introspection and a bottom-up appraisal of social dysfunction.
Although the recent showdown with the Goodman Gallery over Brett Murray’s The Spear painting may have provided the impetus for the summit, which has been some years in the making, what is more interesting is that a department of arts and culture-convened Social Cohesion Colloquium in 2009 was presided over by then-arts and culture minister Lulu Xingwana, whose own views on the intersection of art and pornography bear no repeating. Her pre-World Cup opening address also flagged heritage projects, important national days and the popularisation of national symbols.
In the lead-up to this year’s summit, the discourse of public intellectuals grew increasingly strident. In the Cape Times, academic Achille Mbembe said that “a barely noticeable trend of public life in South Africa during the last decade has been the re-emergence of official culture”, which he described as a process by which the ruling elite “coerces its subjects into internalising and reproducing truths not of their own making”.
In the City Press, academic Njabulo S Ndebele recounted Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes “for those denying the testimony of their own eyes”.
In the Sunday Times, ANC national executive committee member Joel Netshitenze wrote that “the position of the emergent black middle and upper strata is tenuous and insecure. The consequence of this is that, unlike the middle strata in ‘mature’ class societies, their raison d’être is not so much pride in the professions, or engagement in discourse on the nation’s vision, or the shaping of positive value systems for society. Rather, it is survival and climbing the steep social ladder. The sins of incumbency derive in large measure from this.”
Netshitenze’s contribution was all the more interesting given that he is the executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra), which was involved in the drafting of the “national strategy for developing an inclusive and cohesive South African society”. For all its cumbersome theorising, the document states clearly that a cohesive society should be characterised by, among other things, “transparent and accountable handling of public affairs by public representatives and government officials”.
But at Walter Sisulu Square, the parade of politicians at a morning plenary session titled “The role of political parties” exposed the large cracks in the rainbow. The exercise increasingly took on the air of a political party free-for-all, with successive representatives taking shots at one another.
“We won’t point to the origins of the culture of lawlessness,” said an Inkatha Freedom Party representative, who outlined the breakdown between the government and citizens.
“The changing of [geographical] names is an insult to my national pride,” the Freedom Front Plus told an indignant audience, before calling for a department of minority affairs.
“Political parties must be taken seriously, regardless of their size,” said the African Christian Democratic Party’s Raymond Tlaeli, cheekily. “Size does not matter,” he added to chuckles.
The Azanian Peoples Organisation speculated about the possible life or death of Mbuyisa Makhubo, who was carrying Hector Pietersen in the famed June 16 photograph, while the Pan Africanist Congress bemoaned its obliteration from history and skewed party funding.
With a general disregard for the occasion, it was reassuring, towards the end of the morning’s parade, to encounter a voice driven less by politicking than by the gravity of the awaiting challenge.
African People’s Convention president Themba Godi, with his eloquent warnings about a mantshingilane (authoritarian) state and intangible freedom, won approval from the sea of flags. Godi was perhaps a good place to start for some egoless reflection.
“It was great to see the ruling party taking a tougher stance,” he said, referring, in part, to Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s firm talk about the divisiveness of “minorities who don’t want to be apart from the majority” and prefered to be treated differently.
“But it’s that which we do that affects the lives of the ordinary people. And I say this without negating the importance of theory. We have enough pieces of legislation that codify the rights enshrined in the Constitution, but the daily practice is something else,” Godi said.
It was only the aftermath that would decide whether the summit was on to something tangible or whether the declaration would gather dust. “We have powerful legislation so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Godi said.
Demobilised the people
His view was that a “cardinal sin” was committed when the “ANC demobilised the people” after 1994. “If they’re not drivers of their own development, then you open room for patronage, corruption and inefficiency. The state is efficient at collecting taxes but inefficient at using the resources at its disposal to impact the material conditions of the people.”
Mistra senior researcher Leslie Dikeni said the draft strategy document derived from government research documents from various departments that were collated with ongoing research being conducted by the institution.
The draft was then taken to government clusters for input. In the provinces, people were asked to comment, input and critique, and then it was sent to the Cabinet where it was adopted as is. “Now, the objective is to give it shape.”
Dikeni said that in the development of some policies in the past, no thorough research had been done and that policies such as affirmative action and black economic empowerment needed to be deconstructed to see how they were affecting the people.
He said that the idea of “bad state versus good citizens” was “precolonial”. The global financial crisis had shown that there were no holy cows – big business and bankers were corrupt, too.