/ 2 December 2016

​Democracy is a work in progress

The Johannesburg branch of the ANC has put Kgalema Motlanthe's name forward as a candidate for the presidency of the ANC.
The Johannesburg branch of the ANC has put Kgalema Motlanthe's name forward as a candidate for the presidency of the ANC.

The concerns that have engendered conflict in South Africa in the post-1994 era ask that we pose difficult, frank and pertinent questions — and make sense of the country we sought to realise back then, as well as the one that we have built since.

The danger of accepting democracy at face value exists in resting on our laurels and considering freedom, equality and justice as achieved, rather than regarding these as ideals that have to be constantly fought for, deepened and reinforced.

We continue to journey towards the strategic goal of building a South African society that is founded on unity, democracy, nonracialism, nonsexism, equality, justice and prosperity.

We continue to require the creation of a society that is free from all maladies of discrimination and multiple intersecting forms of oppression.

We do this as the fissures in our societies remain all too visible, particularly for the people for whom material concerns still persist — who have to find ways to stay alive, fed and healthy, before considering the possibility of thriving, being citizens or even being human in the fullest realisation of the word and experience.

For many, the conditions of post-colonial societies remain stifling and narrow the possibilities of the future — those that must be widened, in the sense that they are expanded to reach the majority, not perpetually kept from their grasp.

There are multiple complex issues that we collectively face on the continent. These include matters of education, unemployment, healthcare, decent housing, staggering levels of poverty, a culture of systemic corruption in its many forms and social inequalities and discrimination on multiple bases.

These social ills are historically rooted and inherited, but in the absence of ethical leadership they assume a particularly worsening if not pronounced form.

The great triad of democratic concerns — freedom, justice and equality — are central to any conception of a better society, but they are not realised by the mere invocation of their name. Failure to address and preserve them, even as we realise that the social issues we face were not entirely shaped by our hands, cannot excuse our complicity in their continuation.

Our concerns with these terms and conditions of our societies, then, are not merely abstract but are rooted in the practical realisation of the rights enshrined in the founding texts of our democracies. They are grounded in water, electricity, decent housing, universal and affordable education, a thriving healthcare sector, freedom from discrimination and universal citizenship, and are found in every promise we made at the dawn of our democratic era.

At this time, reality is at odds with the vision we built our democratic society on. These circumstances are most acutely being challenged by those who have inherited the democracy we struggled for: the so-called born-free youth of our country.

Across the country, our youths are questioning the present. In doing this, they have been met with what they deem to be intransigence.

What is of critical importance is that we pay attention to the roots of their discontent, which speak of social diseases we have yet to overcome and fully treat.

We need to take the foundations of these protests seriously, as moments like this call for us to introspect about the nature of this society and the quality of our democracy.

The Freedom Charter was clear on the notion of higher education, stating that “higher education and technical training shall be open to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”.

Although the charter called for state intervention with allowances and scholarships, it equally never underemphasised the key issue of merit, which, ultimately, raises the all-important matter of responsibility.

In order to advance our country and continent and see it become a world leader in innovation, modernisation and critical skills, and to stand at the vanguard of our digital future, we need to create spaces of teaching and learning that nourish intellectual and creative development at all levels.

This will require extraordinary effort on our part to create sophisticated centres of basic and tertiary education that will propel us into the future, by nurturing our young minds and ensuring their development.

The youth are the claimants of the future. Consequently it is only fair that they have a stake and say in its fashioning and that we engage them in meaningful dialogue towards mapping out strategies for development.

In doing this, we need to consider the mode of consciousness needed to bring the youth into the creation of a renewed society as equal partners.

At present, it is evident that there are indeed age-based disjunctures between our various segments of society, accompanied by disproportionate representation in terms of power.

We should not create obstructionist circumstances that throw the youth out of our society, whether symbolically or physically, and leave them no choice but to seek out better shores and swell the ranks of foreign populations.

They need access to quality education on our shores and employment opportunities once they depart from our campuses.

What is evidenced by much young inquisition into the nature of our state here, which echoes across the world, is an interrogation of the inheritance of a dream and the symbols of statehood that we have attached to it.

In this moment, we are reminded that politics should not be an exclusive old men’s club that speaks more to the past than to the future, and primarily we are reminded of the dreams we once held as young students protesting against an authoritarian regime.

We have to renew our vision of the societies we seek to create, after the elation of initial post-colonial moments and with the benefit of hindsight and critical reflection.

In thinking about what a renewed vision for our society requires, I often return to the intentions that gave rise to the tenets of our new society. These can be found in the 34 principles that constructed the Constitution; they are present in the terms and conditions agreed upon at the first Codesa [Congress for a Democratic South Africa] meeting; and they were inspired by the Freedom Charter.

Adopted at the Congress of the People in June 1955, this document widens our understanding of freedom and humanity and enlarges our commitment to democracy.

Through stating that our country belongs to all, and will be governed by the people in accordance with their will, it contains an unyielding commitment to the development of a just society that is devoid of the stains of past relations — past relations that are structured by hierarchies according to race, class, sex and belief.

The commitment to equality among all in South Africa is one we are still endeavouring to achieve, and must continue to do so as we build on the legacy of those founding mothers and fathers of our state. As the charter states: “And we pledge ourselves to strive together sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.”

And so we continue to work towards the attainment of the society we envisaged all those years ago — in honour of the many lives that were lived and lost in the service of the ideals embedded in the very idea of democracy.

Many South Africans are asking legitimate questions about the state of our nation today, and are beginning to wonder whether the direction we are taking is not the antithesis of what Dr Chota Motala and his generation and those before had envisioned for post-apartheid society.

No one in their sound mind would disagree with them. What is encouraging though is to see society reclaiming what rightfully belongs to us. Society is restive and agitated; it is saying no to state capture. It is saying no to self-enrichment. It is saying no to the corrosive culture that has encroached upon us.

The current degenerate moral climate that is morphing into the new normal cannot take hold in our midst while the vibrant historical memory evocative of comrade Chota Motala and many other impeccable leaders still underpins our consciousness.

The elastic moral parameters set off by this historical memory allow society to contest the brazen abuse of political discourse, office and leadership positions by those elected to further the cause of our freedom.

Kgalema Motlanthe is a former president of South Africa. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at the third annual Dr Chota Motala lecture at the Mancosa campus in Durban last month.