These past few years have unsettled the boundaries of our fledgling democracy. Some of the challenges, such as the tendency of the ruling party to respond to healthy criticism with hostility, emerged during former President Thabo Mbeki's time. They became more pronounced after the election of President Jacob Zuma, a man whose various indiscretions are an open secret.
Some may say that these indiscretions are "insignificant acts" in the larger scheme of things – the macropolitical realm – and that, in any case, the president apologised for some of them. Indeed, in the minds of some South Africans, these public apologies – for having unprotected sex with the woman who accused him of rape, for extramarital infidelity and for his homophobic statement (gay and lesbian South Africans are a "disgrace to the nation and to God") – loom larger on the horizon of the president's legacy than his exceptional leadership.
A lot is at stake in our young democracy. Such "insignificant acts" of the politically powerful often filter down to everyday social life, where they are emulated as "codes of conduct" by many young people who look up to their leaders.
If the statements of the leadership in the ruling party and its alliance partners embodied principles of democracy, they would be more likely to inspire the transformative social and economic vision that was our hope when apartheid collapsed.
The reaction by the ANC leadership and its alliance partners to the voices of young people posted on an FNB website as part of its "You Can Help" campaign is troubling. To suggest that an act of agency – freedom of expression – is treasonable simply because it shines a critical spotlight on the government is a profound contradiction of the very essence of our democracy. Closing the space of dialogue in our society harks back to the bleakest days of the apartheid state's repressive policies.
A few years ago, I was part of a group that organised a public dialogue called "Voices, Visions and Hopes of Our Youth: What's Missing in Our Democracy". The event was inspired by the words of former President Nelson Mandela: "When you invest in the youth, you invest in the future."
Five high-school students on the panel in a packed auditorium were invited to share the challenges they faced as young South Africans and their hopes for the future. They came from schools in Khayelitsha, Athlone and private girls' schools in Cape Town and Durban.
We organised the event as an "intergenerational" dialogue: on the side of the older generation were Dr Mamphela Ramphele, former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission deputy chairperson Dr Alex Boraine.
I mention this event because of the enduring importance of the voices of these young people, who spoke about a range of issues, including the failure of black economic empowerment to trickle down to communities with the greatest need, the slow pace of change, the lack of inspiration or vision in political campaigns, and violence and the lack of resources in schools.
The voices of two of the young people from Khayelitsha seem particularly significant to me now. One of them, a young woman in Grade 10, spoke about how threatening life was for gay and lesbian youth, especially for girls, who often faced ridicule and the threat of "corrective" rape at school and in their neighbourhood.
The second, a student in Grade 11, spoke about the lack of security at school and the feelings of vulnerability that made it challenging to attend. He was a physical science student. With marks in the range of 60%-65%, he was confident he would pass matric, but he was concerned about whether he would be able to achieve his dream of studying at university for two reasons: first, he had never seen a laboratory and, second, the constant eruptions of violence at his school were beginning to erode his sense of hope.
I was reminded of the voices of these young people last week and wondered how their lives had unfolded since they participated in our public dialogue five years ago.
The young woman from the private girls' school in Rondebosch, Cape Town, completed her degree cum laude at a university in Cape Town and the one from Durban is studying at a university in Johannesburg.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, given the dire circumstances of their schools and communities, the two young people from Khayelitsha "dropped out" of school. The young man was "sent" to Gauteng by his family to find work and the young woman returned to the Eastern Cape without completing high school.
The challenges experienced by these young people – unsafe communities and unsafe schools, poor resources, poverty, inequality and unemployment – are played out from generation to generation.
The voices of young people
When young people recently spoke about their experiences and expressed their views about what should be done, why were the ANC and its alliance partners so quick to appropriate the apartheid-era strategy of instilling fear and silencing dissent with allegations of treason?
At this time of increasing threats to our democracy and when governments in the developing world are advocating the importance of the voices of young people, the need for dialogue and opening a space for these voices is more vital than ever. Silence young people and they will emerge in powerful ways that can no longer be silenced. We already see this picture on national television.
The lessons of the past are that rubber bullets and teargas cannot silence the hunger for change. Dialogue does so, creating the space for people to voice their unhappiness in order to chart a way forward towards a more stable country, a more stable democracy. It worked once and it can work again.
Even more important is a need for reflection on the crisis of moral leadership in our country. Leadership matters.
Professor Barney Pityana spoke poignantly about this issue at the University of the Free State in December last year: "Our leaders should not be separated from us, but should give us a vision of a better tomorrow." It is possible for things to change for the better, he said, citing the changes that have taken place at the University of the Free State under Professor Jonathan Jansen's leadership.
Pitayna pointed out that at the heart of the problem with the ANC's leadership was the notion that the "collective" would decide. Leadership matters. So does taking responsibility. "We no longer have a shared value and concern about the country," he said. "We can no longer believe that, even when we vote, democracy no longer means anything. We need to recover a fresh sense of democracy."
The need for a fresh sense of democracy is why I believe Dr Mamphela Ramphele's (re)entry on to the political stage offers such promise.
It is a promise to rebuild a space for moral engagement.
We need to rebuild our nation, not because, as the president remarked at a church in KwaZulu-Natal last April, currently "we have a nation of thugs". Rather, we need to restore the morality that inspired the movement and the struggle for change in our country.
Legacies are unpredictable. President Zuma's legacy, it seems, is already written in the complicated narratives that ushered him into the presidency and in the narratives that have unfolded since.
It is time to recover a fresh sense of democracy that will open the space for healthy exchange among all South Africans.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is senior research professor at the University of the Free State