South Africans have spoken. For the sixth time, the republic has performed its power; it has claimed its democratic will. On May 25, President Cyril Ramaphosa will be sworn in and the electoral cycle will be reset. But, contrary to our enchantment, the elections are not the end of the democratic process; they are the beginning.
Democracy is not simply assigning a political party to govern. Democracy is a participatory process; it requires the ongoing co-operation of citizens. But South Africa’s hard-fought democracy is not receiving the popular toil it requires to make it succeed. It is clear that the social consensus that ended apartheid and accorded democracy is faltering. To revive and advance the South African project, it is crucial that we deliberate and enact a new consensus.
South Africa’s new leaders must provide the vision to stimulate this shared national project. In a 2018 speech, former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas suggested that a new consensus requires “leadership vigour across political formations, as well as business, labour and civil society. This is critical to address the trust deficit and negotiate the trade-offs necessary for inclusive growth.”
Simply put, if South Africa is to achieve its goals, it requires trust and co-operation.
In his reply to the 2019 State of the Nation debate, Ramaphosa appealed: “We are all called upon and enjoined to heal the divisions and the pain of the past. This is a collective task … it is our task as a nation. It belongs to all of us … I am confident that we can move with urgency and purpose to forge a new social compact to revive our economy, to create jobs, reduce inequality and effect fundamental social economic transformation.”
A social compact is more than a social contract. Whereas the latter prompts people to comply with the government’s laws, the former enjoins citizens as participants in the practice of democracy; it performs national accord. In its section Transforming Society and Uniting the Country, the National Development Plan invokes the adoption of “a comprehensive social compact [that] will transform society, achieve redress and build an equitable, cohesive society”.
The social compact achieved at democratic South Africa’s dawn has been central to the process and settlement of its democratic transition. The apartheid state was premised on maintaining separation in public spaces and between people. Its goal was to prevent a social compact. It tactically denied black people their choice.
It was the South African people, led by movements such as the United Democratic Front, who tore open a system of forced separation. The people congregated, they broke the walls that kept them apart. The apartheid state was defeated by people refusing to be divided; by people recognising each other, not as apart but as equals. The government was forced to fundamentally change its strategy; it could not reform into one a system that was fundamentally two. By abandoning the concept of “other”, the grounds were laid for a unitary state and the development of a social compact.
When the white-only electorate voted “yes” in the 1992 referendum that asked whether they supported negotiations towards a new Constitution, they consented to the idea of a national social compact.
Black people, long oppressed and suppressed in the land of their birth, were not asked such an explicit question. Instead, their remarkable leadership entered into negotiations toward a government of national unity, reconciling with their former enemy. Those excluded before were encouraged to accept white people as their equals. They were implored to sacrifice their anger and political dominance; to not act out of vengeance but to perform reconciliation.
The need for a social compact proved critical at the time of Chris Hani’s murder, in 1993. When, on the night of the murder, Nelson Mandela addressed South Africans through the government’s SABC, he showed great fortitude, proving himself South Africa’s unequivocal political authority. Out of this moment of discord he shaped a new national accord. He addressed the people of South Africa as one, insisting that Hani’s murder was “a crime against all the people of our country … we are a nation deeply wounded … we are a nation in mourning, our pain and anger is real. Yet we must not permit ourselves to be provoked by those who seek to deny us the very freedom Chris Hani gave his life for. Let us respond with dignity in a disciplined fashion.”
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu poignantly recalls Hani’s funeral: “We were on the brink of a bloody catastrophe … I asked the crowd to repeat after me: ‘We will be free, all of us, black and white together.’ Now you would have thought the young, angry, radical blacks would have said: ‘To hell with all white people.’ But they didn’t. They roared back: ‘We will be free, all of us, black and white together.’”
A renewed social compact will again depend on visionary leadership and faithful participation. It requires a broad paradigm shift that transcends previous logic. Our “new dawn” invokes us to move forward, beyond our entrapment in perceptions that are often not honest to our national reality. South Africans must join together to enact a strategy that aggressively confronts the national problems.
In 2017, an interdisciplinary, interuniversity partnership of scholars released Betrayal of the Promise, a critical assessment of “how South Africa is being stolen”. As the State Capacity Research Project, the group recognised their democratic responsibility and described the details of the national political impasse of state capture. The report suggests state capture took root from the reality that “since 1994 there has never been an economic policy framework that has enjoyed the full support of all stakeholders”.
To achieve economic consensus, South Africa needs a social compact, “a programme of radical economic transformation achieved within the constitutional, legislative and governance framework … [that requires] an atmosphere of trust conducive for innovation-oriented partnerships between business, government, knowledge institutions and social enterprises”.
The 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, that paved the way towards the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, proved an integral and transformative component that nurtured and matured the social compact.
In 2019 a similar instructive instrument may be required to establish a framework towards a transformative economic consensus. At its heart must be a constructive engagement on land.
As was the case in 1994, the group with the lion’s share of power is required to transcend short-term interests for long-term gains. This time the sacrifice lies not at the door of political power, but of economic power. Theirs should be a holistic displacement of mistrust, an active advance of the national interest and a considerable investment in the future of all South Africans.
White people, in particular, should embrace their opportunity to contribute to this economic consensus. In a recent speech, Ramaphosa beseeched the audience of mostly white farmers to take responsibility: “Let us look at the land reform process in a positive way … let us say: ‘What is it that we can do as farmers in South Africa to address this problem?’ ”
A holistic, practical approach will see white people performing reconciliation, liberating themselves in the land of their birth. It will advance a just society, wherein long-term security and prosperity become possible for all.
Earlier this year Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University for her contribution to understanding and unravelling trauma and transformation in the South African society. In her acceptance speech she said: “The capacity to place ourselves in the position of another who wants to re-enter the world of moral humanity is an act of solidarity that invites the other’s sense of responsibility; it is the only way out of the madness that denies the violence of history.”
In line with Tutu’s appeal, she stressed that “the humanity of perpetrators and beneficiaries of privilege [has been recognised] for the sake of a transformed conception of society”. It is now time for all South Africans to further the transition to a just society.
As the victims of apartheid embraced a humanist approach to transcend the political, so too must those with privilege today transcend the prevailing economic ethic to embrace a humanist approach. In doing so, we ground ourselves in the soil, proclaiming ourselves as African.
By revering the collective ahead of the self, we assure that we are of this land. By accepting that our security and dignity lie ingrained in the security and dignity of the greater whole, we commit to a transformative social compact.
Klaus Kotzé is the AW Mellon-UCT postdoctoral research fellow, Centre for Rhetoric Studies, Law Faculty, University of Cape Town