/ 12 October 2018

Keep defending democracy

Young people are not politically apathetic and have made it quite clear that they are no longer willing to accept the normalisation of colonial symbols and practices.
Citizen heroes: Members of the Right2Know campaign and the Social Justice Coalition celebrate a small victory outside Parliament with a candlelight vigil. (David Harrison)


It has become increasingly clear that the ANC, even with a new leadership, will not be able to “fix” our society and nor should we expect it to. If political parties are too caught up in their own power plays to map a way forward for our country and give meaning to the vision of our Constitution, then citizens must do it, even in the context of our divided, complex society.

It will take a mammoth collective effort from business, civil society and citizens to rise up and speak out against the inaction fuelled by those who would consign our country to the dustbin of corrupt politics. Former United States president Barack Obama once said: “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”

Stay at it. A marathon, not a sprint. There is a positive resilience that has been growing at the heart of our society in the past few years, as a response either to our current condition or to former president Jacob Zuma’s blatant corruption. There are what I call “green shoots” out there, initiatives aimed at greater government accountability, and we should be supporting them.

Citizen activism has been an important, probably decisive, defender of South Africa’s democracy and constitutional order. This has been seen in the protests against secrecy, against the venal use of apartheid-era legislation such as the National Key Points Act, in pushing for transparency on matters such as party funding, in protesting against state capture — and in thousands of smaller, typically unrecorded assertions of the right of citizens to be taken seriously when faced with official arrogance, dishonesty or indifference.

Of course, civil society embraces a wide variety of ideological and political perspectives, not all compatible with one another. That activists and activist groups may disagree with one another is not especially important. The willingness to debate ideas and to contest abuses ensures that any intrusion into the freedoms and constitutional entitlements of South Africa’s people will always meet resistance.

Emeritus professor and politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert once wrote: “Even if it is so that some intellects in government crave for a ‘Gramscian hegemony’ over the masses, they haven’t got a snowball’s hope in hell. The scope and diversity of civic action simply defies such hegemony. Voluntary associations in the areas of literacy, health, skills development, business management, orphan care, combating Aids, perform magnificently. I have met and observed many of them. Of course, government can play an important enabling role, but if it does not do so, it will simply be regarded as irrelevant. There is boundless arrogance in the notion that you have the right to tell ordinary common-sense folk how and what to think.”

It has been strong, open media and robust civil society organisations that have stood between us and the most egregious breaches of our Constitution.

The civil society groups are too numerous to mention but I think of the Right2Know campaign and its dogged pursuit to prevent the securitisation of the state; Black Sash, which has fought a valiant campaign against corruption in the South African Social Security Agency; and Section27, which continues to fight for the rights of the vulnerable.

We can take deep comfort in this. Given the challenges of the present, where exactly should our focus lie in building a post-Zuma democracy? A democracy in which we enable citizens “to build popular, accountable and sustainable self-government” and “enjoy equality with each other in governance processes”, as the definition of a functional democracy by the now defunct Institute for a Democratic South Africa requires?

Our society, now more than ever, is in need of critical voices on every front as it continues the battle to find its soul. We will need critical voices if we are to participate in debates about a “post-Zuma world” and the kind of leadership South Africa needs.

How do we forge a society in which we can talk honestly about race, class and other fault lines? How does society raise up leaders among us, capable of what writer Njabulo Ndebele once called “counterintuitive leadership”?

This takes us beyond the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa and any other political party. It is reimagining quite a different South Africa.

This is an edited extract from Turning and Turning (Pan Macmillan) by Judith February, who is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is a visiting fellow at the Wits School of Governance