Wits’s Habib: Divide and conquer the elite

South Africa has the most progressive, pro-poor Constitution in the world. So why do the poor, who have so much legal power, remain so disempowered?

This was the question Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib posed during a discussion with Section 27 director Mark Heywood at an event in Melville, Johannesburg, on Tuesday night. The event was to discuss Habib's new book, South Africa's Suspended Revolution.

A question from the floor followed, appropriately contextualising Habib's initial query: "What happened to the organised in South Africa? What happened to the organisers? Why hasn't democracy translated into sustainable development?"

Heywood said government will not do what it is supposed to do "on its own". It needs to be held accountable.

Habib said the dilemma of the poor is that they don't have power, despite the legislative mechanisms at their disposal.

The elite and the poor
He said Section 27 is a "special organisation" in that it changes the levers of power between the elite and the poor. The way to hold the elite accountable, Habib said, is in one of two ways. The first way to change the status quo is one of divide and conquer.

"Divide elites. It's only then that they appeal to poor people. We had the most responsible ANC ever between 2005 and 2008 because Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were fighting. All Zuma-ites, who couldn't even spell neoliberalism, found out that it was a bad thing," said Habib.

The second way is to mobilise people, he said. This is the nexus argument of his book: if South Africa wants to deal with inequality, it needs to do so through organisation or through dividing the elite. "Politicians only deliver when there's an accountability measure. Politicians and corporate elites only deliver when there's accountability." 

Habib suggested that one mechanism to hold corporate members of the elite accountable is to punish colluding construction companies by forcing them to invest in communities.

"Take every rural school in the Eastern Cape and let the CEOs fix infrastructure."

1994 and beyond
Habib said that "despite challenges to transparency and freedom of expression" it is "nonsensical" to ask if South Africa is a better place now than it was in 1994.

"But we've made some serious mistakes," he said.

The biggest of these, and a mistake that the National Development Plan made, is that we have not addressed inequality. Inequality is not the same as poverty, said Habib. 

Heywood said there couldn't be many other countries in the world where the poor have so much "theoretical" power vested in the Constitution.

"Why, then, when you have so much legal power, why do you need to burn libraries, clinics? Why do we see so many incidents of despair?"

Power moves
Heywood said these were the actions of people who do not know their power.

"The question is, how do people claim back their power to advance the interests of all social classes, but especially the poor? If we don't, we will get to a point of no return."

But he agreed with Habib that South Africa has made great strides.

"Well, is South Africa better than in 1994? Well, if it isn't better than 1994, I mean, god, you know, I mean, really…"

And yet for a lot of people, this betterment has yet to hit home.

"I think we all agree we are reaching a tipping point. We all know people like [Julius] Malema will assume large power in our society through rhetoric and dogma and it will be difficult for groups like us who, instead of advancing constitutional rights, will be fighting to defend basic human rights.

"I believe there should be an uprising about education, like there was about HIV … 50-million people have a right to demand that the supreme law is complied with," Heywood said. 

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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