Open Letter to President Thabo Mbeki – Recommitting ourselves to nation building

Comrade President [Thabo Mbeki], 24 years ago you stood in the National Assembly as the deputy President of the Republic of South Africa in a debate on Reconciliation and Nation Building. In your prolific and impeccable address you made brutally honest and compelling arguments that are worth revisiting today in an attempt to make sense of our society, the challenges it faces today and to effectively respond to them in our quest to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa that is “able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations” as stipulated in the preamble of our Constitution.

The first imperative reflection from your address is your succinct definition of nation building in the context of South Africa in which you said: “… nation building is the construction of the reality and the sense of common nationhood which would result from the abolition of disparities in the quality of life among South Africans based on the racial, gender and geographic inequalities we all inherited from the past.”

There are several things to take note of from your definition. Firstly, it appreciates the essence of a shared history, which is one of the largely accepted characteristic features of a nation. Secondly, it recognises the persisting realities in our society emanating from that shared history. Lastly and most significantly, your definition bestows a responsibility to “abolish” these persistent and stubborn realities that are characterised by “disparities in the quality of life among South Africans based on the racial, gender and geographic inequalities we all inherited from the past”.

While this address was made in and directed to the National Assembly, which largely comprises members of the executive and legislative authorities of our democratic state, I believe the responsibility expressed in your definition was bestowed upon all of us as South Africans, as it resonates and echoes the preamble of our Constitution which says, among other things: 

 “We, the people of South Africa … through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”

Thus, your honest and frank answer in the negative to the question of whether we are making sufficient progress in our efforts of nation building is an indictment on all of us as South Africans. Comrade President, 24 years later we are still failing to carry out the responsibility expressed in your definition of nation building. We are failing to merge the two nations you observed in your arguments, and reconcile South Africans into one united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous nation.

Comrade President, 24 years later, as I am due to turn 27 years of age, I am saddened and embarrassed to report to you that the disparities in the quality of life of our people based on racial, gender, geographic and class inequalities continue to widen. Even more devastating is the fact that we are now confronted with more than two nations. This means that we have significantly regressed in the past 24 years in our efforts to construct the reality you envisaged in your definition of nation building.

One of the most disheartening realities that has instead emerged over the years is that the majority nation of blacks you observed and characterised in your contention of there being two nations at the time of your address has broken up into another two nations: the “haves” and the have-nots”. A new repugnant stratum has emerged and continues to flourish at the expense of the have-nots, who still make up the majority of the black nation you spoke of in your address.

The African National Congress, the governing party you presided over as deputy president and president and continue to be an active member of, in its recent National General Council (NGC) discussion document on The Changing Balance of Forces, describes this repugnant stratum as a “lumpen strata”, and characterises it as follows: “What characterises them is illegitimate and illegal self-enrichment and a posture that sees ethical and capable state or civil society institutions as inimical to their crass materialistic interest.”

Members of our society who have pledge their allegiance to this repugnant stratum are haunted by the demons your spoke of in your seminal Nelson Mandela Lecture in 2006, eight years later after your National Assembly address, when you said: 

“Thus everyday and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity — get rich! get rich! get rich!”

These stalking demons have overpowered and gotten the worst of the lumpen stratum. They are hypnotised under a massive spell of these demons to get rich, and get rich at all costs. Given the extent to which these lumpens, as described by the ANC, are willing to go to get rich, I am sure there is no right amount of exorcism or/and prayer in our mortal world that can deliver them from these demons that continue to engulf their souls and conscience.

What makes matters worse is that some of these lumpens are found within the rank and file of the ANC, which is supposedly the leader of our society. Even worse, Comrade President, is that some were present in the National Assembly when you gave that address in 1998; they even gave you a rousing standing ovation after your address. These supposed “cadres” have not only disregarded the responsibility you bestowed upon us, but they also went on to be perpetrators of the ery disparities you commanded us to abolish.

Comrade President, these lumpens are very sleek and sophisticated in their operations. Making this point, the ANC, in the same NGC discussion document notes that “their interests and activities intersect in various areas of social endeavour. They collaborate across social networks and professional spheres”. It goes on further to give a more nuanced definition of who these lumpens are as follows:

• The parasitic bureaucratic bourgeoisie, some of whom seek to capture state institutions and repurpose them for their own accumulation;

• Sections of the political elite and bureaucracy who use their positions in state institutions for venal self-enrichment;

• Some leaders within the trade union movement who swindle unions or their investments arms;

• Religious leaders who use their institutions as platforms of spiritual deceit for purposes of larceny from devotees;

• Elements among student and youth leaders who take advantage of their positions for the purpose of making money;

• Groups that demand “empowerment cuts”, outside of the law, in projects being carried out in various localities;

• Some leaders of local protest movements who use distressed communities’ grievances to worm their way into political, bureaucratic or procurement opportunities;

• The traditional lumpenproletariat in crime syndicates; and

• Small-time criminals who aspire for more comfort.

Some of these lumpen and repugnant elements that have emerged and continue to flourish in our society presided over, facilitated and actively participated in the state capture of our government, which has led to the continual gross erosion of our democratic and developmental institutions over the years through corruption and maladministration. These despicable elements have and continue to reverse our democratic gains which include but are not limited to nation building as envisaged in your 1998 National Assembly address and our Constitution.

Realising that their interests and activities are being exposed — thanks to the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture led by the acting Chief Justice, Judge Raymond Zondo — they have now resorted to launching an attack on our Constitution and the judiciary. I suspect their crooked logic, which must have been evoked by the stalking and hypnotic demons that have possessed them, is that if they succeed in their unfounded and illogical attack on the Constitution and the judiciary, they will successfully evade accountability and possible prosecution.

Their logic, as far as I am concerned, is that once they succeed in attacking and delegitimising the Constitution and the judiciary, they can then argue that an illegitimate Constitution and judiciary cannot be used as state apparatus to hold them accountable and possibly prosecute them for their counterrevolutionary and criminal activities that continue to haunt this country in the post-democratic era.

Comrade President, I write this open letter, in part, to assure you that this crooked and demonic logic will not see the light of day because we are ready to defend the Constitution with whatever it takes. We are beyond ready to put our bodies on the line in defence of the Constitution and the democratic gains this bunch of lumpens seek to reverse. This country is ours and we will not let it go to the dogs, at least not without a fight!

Another disturbing feature that we need to attend to, Comrade President, is the fact that a large segment of the white minority nation you characterised as “relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure” stubbornly refuses to come to the party in our attempts to carry out the mandate of nation building you bestowed upon all of us.

These repugnant and regressive whites have chosen to cling tightly to the privileges they continue to enjoy mainly as a result of colonialisation and apartheid. They vehemently refuse to partake in the democratic project of building a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous nation of South Africans by holding on, reproducing and perpetuating their racial prejudices. As a result, racial inequalities continue to widen in favour of the whites at the expense of the black majority, because they reproduce their racial prejudices against other races through instruments such as institutional racism.

Over the years, racism has been institutionalised in almost all the segments of our society, including the political system. Hence, unscientific terms such as “white monopoly capital” find expression and relevance in our political lexicon. This is so, in part, because a significantly large portion of this country’s wealth is still concentrated in the hands of the minority, which happens to be largely white as result of the sad history of colonisation and apartheid, which economically empowered the white minorities at the expense of the black majority.

Writing about institutional racism in the workplace, William Gumede contends in his Mail & Guardian opinion piece entitled Institutional racism is still alive and kicking in the workplace, that “institutional racism is deeply ingrained in the corporate culture of many South African organisations. Its undermining of the wellbeing of black people, labour and racial peace and its effects on productivity are devastating”.

Black professionals, workers and labourers continue to suffer dehumanising indignities in the workplace as result of the institutionalised racism deeply embedded in the corporate culture of South Africa. They often find themselves working under unfair and precarious conditions as opposed to their white counterparts. As if that is not enough, they are often overlooked in promotion opportunities, regardless of their outstanding performance in their areas of responsibility. This makes it extremely hard for them to progressively advance in their careers, climb up the corporate ladder and occupy strategic corporate positions, which will, in part, enable them to effect the much-needed transformation within those corporations.

Gumede contends in the same opinion piece that: “In the post-apartheid era, institutional racism is disguised in standard operating policies, whether it’s in the criteria for appointment or promotion, the measuring of competency or the valuing of ideas. The stereotype of black people as inferior has become embedded and white people’s interactions with black people are still largely based on the latter being staff with low pay, low skills and low benefits.”

This entrenched institutional racism across various sectors of our society continues to erode and reverse our democratic gains, more particularly with regards to our nation building agenda. It perpetuates the disparities in the quality of life of South Africans you commanded us to abolish in 1998. It is an epidemic that we need to first acknowledge exists, and then find effective methods to eradicate completely in our democratic society. It must not feature in the envisaged National Democratic Society we are building towards.

Comrade President, by fortune and grace, I am addressing this letter of reflection to you while you are still with us in the realm of the living. I am confident that you are well aware of these issues I am raising, and in fact, you are playing an active role on multiple platforms and across various sectors to proactively respond and resolve some of them. This you do because you have inspirationally refused to retire when your country can still benefit from your wealth of wisdom, intellect and political will. For this, Comrade President, we are eternally grateful as young people of this country and beyond.

Thus, this letter is a reassurance to you and South Africans at large that we, the young people of this beautiful country, are still committed to the mandate of nation building you commanded in your address in 1998. Our commitment is not just in words, but it is also and will continue to be expressed through progressive and revolutionary deeds that seek to realise and sustain the reality you envisaged in your definition of nation building.

In the main, we will engage in a rugged struggle to ensure that all those who are implicated in the state capture report are brought to book, including the role-players in the private sector, labour and civil society organisations. We will do this through advocacy and all the necessary actions to apply pressure on the law enforcement agencies to move with the necessary speed and accuracy in bringing the perpetrators to book. We vow that the billions of rands that have been spent on the state capture enquiry will not go to waste under our watch.

Secondly, we will do whatever it takes to combat the repugnant and lumpen elements within the ANC (especially those of us who are members of the organisation) and in society. We will engage in progressive and strategic anti-corruption campaigns and demand high standards of quality services from our law enforcement agencies and community-based programmes that seek to fight against crime and lawlessness, such as community policing forums, and we will be whistleblowers where we witness criminal and unethical conduct across all sectors of our society.

This we must do without fear or favour because the levels of crime and lawlessness in our country are devastating. It saddens me deeply, that as I pen this letter to you, Comrade President, the very same National Assembly precinct in which you made the historic address I am reflecting on herein has been literally burnt to ashes, an event that many of us have never dared to imagine in the post-democratic era.

Last but not least, we will do whatever it takes to heed the clarion call made by the President of the Republic of South Africa, Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa, in one of his weekly Presidential letters which was published on 17 January 2022. He said in that letter:

“We must safeguard against any and all efforts to diminish our hard-won democracy, whether these efforts take the form of corruption in state-owned enterprises, the subversion of our law enforcement agencies, the sabotage of our economic infrastructure, or attacks on the independence and integrity of our judiciary.

We need to protect our Constitution, our democratic state and the electoral process from anyone who wants to weaken our democracy and deny the South African people of their hard-won freedom.”

I am confident that many young South Africans in diversity and across the various spaces they actively influence will agree that we have a task to defend our democratic gains, and this irrefutably includes the defence of our Constitution against malicious attacks that seek to undermine our rule of law. We will employ all our potential, talent, intellect, collective wisdom and energy in this strategic obligation to defend our hard-earned democracy that is defined and given its meaning by our Constitution.

Comrade President, it is only prudent that I conclude this letter by wishing you well. I wish you nothing short of good health and prosperity in all your inspirational endeavours to effect progressive change in the state of affairs in our country, the African continent and the world at large. In fact, the commitments to national building expressed in this letter are an appreciation and encouragement to you and those of your generation and beyond who have refused to find comfort in being mere bystanders.

We acknowledge and appreciate your efforts; they are a beacon of hope and inspiration to many of us, the youth, to play our part in building a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa that is “able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations”.

Long live Comrade President Thabo Mbeki!

Yours Comradely,

Kefentse Mkhari

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Kefentse Mkhari
Kefentse Mkhari is a former Wits University SRC president, Fees Must Fall leader and an ANC member in good standing

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