/ 10 February 2023

State of the Nation: Pomp, pageantry and irrelevance

20230209042921 161574
Parliament in Cape Town. Photo: Supplied

We have sacrificed our agency at the altar of democratic centralism

Imagine if the State of the Nation address (Sona) delivered by the president of South Africa last night started with the words “South Africa is in a deep state of crisis” and ended with the words “the government partnership with the many communities of active citizens, patriotic businesses and civil society organisations acknowledges our common mission to turn around the fate and fortunes of South Africa, resourcing and supporting initiatives that address the daily immediate challenges we face and crafting a social contract that we all can use to build the future we deserve”. 

What if the path that is charted out of the mess we are in as a country was not presented as a flowery political speech intended to keep the markets comfortable and the elicit cheers of political allies? What if Sona was less a report-back about what the government hopes to do and more a call to action for a collaborative approach to democracy building that sees communities as agents of change who co-govern, as opposed to projecting politicians as would-be heroes coming to save the forlorn masses?

An address that is both frank in its assessment of the depth of the crisis and empowering in its posture could only be written and delivered by public representatives who deeply understand the lived experiences of the majority of South Africans. Representatives selfless enough to care more about the true state of the nation rather than the narrative that best suits their ambitions. Elected persons who recognise that their role is not to amass state power around themselves, but ultimately to enable the empowerment of the nation. 

Of economic elites

In South Africa, almost 30 years post liberation, it’s hard to imagine political leadership who could deliver such a State of the Nation address. Too many politicians are so far removed from the daily realities of the nation because they have been political or economic elites throughout the entire post-apartheid era.

Far from being representatives of communities of people, elected politicians have defaulted to representing themselves through endless PR stunts, representing the aspirations of the political parties and representing the desires of economic elites who they consult more regularly than the majority of people still willing to show up at the polls to vote them into power. 

The pomp and pageantry of Sona as an event signifies not so much the state of the nation, but the state of our political culture: predictable, navel-gazing, self-interested and tone-deaf to the needs, interests and demands of communities. More an opportunity for playing “democracy, democracy” through a hollow speech of promises, rather than a show of true accountability and responsibility for where we are and what we must do to turn the tide. 

The opportunity to be a public representative is too often confused with a public-relations exercise. The role of a public representative is that of being the ultimate activist, not the best actor. It is not about putting on the best show, or speaking the best English. 

Public representation is about an orientation to be in the service of — and accountable to — the people who elected you, to vow to work for and with to leverage the power of the state for the good of the people. 

It may be foolish to expect an activist orientation from people who have long hung up their activist boots in exchange for boardroom suits. Fortunately, that is something we as the voting population can do something about. We do not need to vote into power people who hardly know who we are. We do not need to give our support and reverence to celebrity-like figures, far removed from our lives. 

We can vote for parties and people whom we know and trust. Those who work with us in our communities. Those who show up for us not only in the times when they need us to show up at the voting booths for them. Public representatives that we trust to represent us, because they are us. 

To someday soon hear a State of the Nation address that truly reflects the nation, we need to elect parties and people who truly represent the nation. Not themselves, not their parties, not their handlers — their communities. 

Repairing the state of the nation

There are three things we need to do to create such a future. First, we must commit to re-engage our political processes. South African voters must use the voting processes to actively hire and fire the public representatives we deserve and the people we most trust. 

We must ask more from those hoping to secure our valuable vote and demand social contracts based on transparency, work and actionable accountability. We must ask of every party or person seeking out votes what they have done for and with us before they had state power, what their plans are with state power, and their commitments if they fail to deliver to their plans. 

Second, we must reclaim and localise our politics. The political is not only personal, it is also about the exercise of power in everyday ways. The centering of political parties and individual leaders has stripped communities of people of an appreciation of our roles in enacting change. 

We have sacrificed our agency at the altar of democratic centralism, outsourcing our assessments of who is competent to serve in government or political office to the people with the loudest voices or the biggest bank balances. 

It is possible for everyone, for every community, to know at least one public representative personally. It may be a local councillor, a member of provincial legislature, an MP or a mayor. But it cannot continue to be the case that we give power to people who live so far removed from us that we have no influence over how they exercise that power. 

Third, we must stop demonising the people we do know who dare consider contesting political power. While the mistrust of politicians is well-founded in a country where politics and public office have been used by bad people to do bad things, it does not follow that every person who seeks to be elected is by extension a bad person too. 

When community activists, long-time changemakers in NGOs or young people in business leadership who we know and whose efforts we celebrate raise their hands to contest for state power, our knee-jerk reactions of mistrust and disdain means that the people with track records of community service, accountability and commitment to our communities are discouraged from making efforts to be our public representatives. 

While it has become easy for us to believe that “power corrupts”, we must also be reminded of the words of Frederick Douglass who said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand”. We must demand better from those to whom we give power, and only give power to those willing to accept and be accountable to those demands. 

South Africa need not accept a political culture that offers up political leaders and public representatives who are out of touch with the nation’s realities. We deserve public representatives and leaders who are not only skilled in the political theatre, but are embedded in community action. 

Changing who leads is a function of changing what we demand from those to whom we give power. It is our collective responsibility to, in the words of Angela Davis, “change what we cannot accept”. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.