“You have to fight for democracy every day. No matter what country you are in, freedom is never won,” Lord Peter Hain, senior British Labour MP and anti-apartheid activist told a forum at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).
The future of democracy in South Africa
Radio talk show host, broadcast journalist and author Redi Thlabi said she became concerned about the future of South Africa’s democracy when she saw institutions being deliberately weakened. “I’m worried about the South African Revenue Service, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks. Who is going to protect our democracy? In one day I travel between hope and despair. But we can’t afford to disengage, or we will have no country left.”
Head of human rights organisation Section27, Mark Heywood told the audience the country is in a very dark space. “We are revealing the worst and all the damage that has been done. But it is worse than many of us can imagine the loss of values and corruption has seeped down into the daily delivery of government.”
Heywood said if privileged people don’t begin to show sympathy and solidarity with the poor “at some point not too far away, the anger will overwhelm us. The situation will have spiraled beyond our control.”
Global perceptions of South Africa
Hain said it pains him to see the values of the freedom struggle betrayed by the country’s current leadership. “South Africa has to change leadership, and change it soon. Or the ANC will die and the country will continue to slide.”
The current debate in South Africa was very parochial he said, and is not situated in a wider global context. “There isn’t enough debate around how the South African economy can compete against the likes of China which has lower costs and higher skills. There is simply not enough benchmarking against the world outside.”
The country has gone from “rainbow nation model to actually being despised by the rest of the world. Unless you eradicate cronyism and corruption completely from the system, you will never establish international confidence.”
Hain argued that South Africa had been “written off” by the global community. “Whereas once it was envied and frankly resented by other countries in Africa, people now look to places like Ghana for vibrant growth.”
Activism and a new political vision
Thlabi said South Africans had difficult decisions to make about the country’s electoral system. “We have to create platforms to demand change and have a direct say about our parliamentarians. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can vote out this lot and simply replace them with another party. The system is contaminated.
We must be more selfish with our vote, to demand the type of electoral system that we want,” she said.
Heywood argued that while trust had previously been ceded to political parties, “That age has passed. Any party will get captured and be corrupted. People need to be mobilised on an ongoing and continuous basis.”
“Activism used to be a life choice. Now, because of the way the world is pushing in on us, all people have to find ways of political activism and for all of us to constantly engage with our society for good. We have no choice.”
Heywood said that he doesn’t believe the future of South Africa lies in political parties, but in what he termed political people: “The future lies in political people who will find ways to work together to mobilise quickly, to reassert values, to demand accountability at all times and recreate a vision of society.”
South Africa’s constitution made the country’s citizens “the most powerful people. You will not find many people with more legal power than a South African citizen.”
Since the removal of Pravin Gordhan as Minister of Finance earlier this year, he said the climate in South Africa had changed: “There is a people’s uprising. It is disorganised, but something is happening.”
Thlabi said that many ordinary people were growing increasingly frustrated as the evidence of state capture became become apparent in their daily lives. “Wherever you are in South Africa, people are feeling agitated. Since Nhlanhla Nene was removed as Minister of Finance in December 2015 the country hasn’t rested. People aren’t fatigued, they are reacting to the best of their ability.”
Heywood cautioned against frustration and said change comes incrementally: “Through all the small fights we are building working relationships and coalitions that weren’t there before.”
“As we go into the election period, we must let the people define the agenda of the South Africa we want in the short and medium term. We have got to invent a language that people can believe in about a society that they can get to, and start organising around that vision,” Heywood concluded.
Thlabi said it was not necessary to belong to an organisation to become an activist, and that interventions did not need to be complicated. She maintained that now was the time for people to mobilise: “What do we define as people’s power? At which point do we think we need to exercise it? She asked. “I think that time has come.”