Reflections on the 21st Anniversary of our Democratic Elections

Talk delivered at the Claremont Main Road Mosque on the occasion of the 21st Anniversary of the first democratic elections

With a landmark 21st anniversary of our 1994 watershed democratic elections upon us, I want to use this opportunity to reflect on this critical conjuncture of our history.

South Africa undergoes periodic paroxysms of serious debate around transformation when a signal event occurs or a dramatic eye-catching one. The rest of the time this debate simmers in the background by the malcontents – and rightly so. This current paroxysm has been initiated around the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and to a lesser extent the inclusion of Vernon Philander in the Protea’s Team that lost their World Cup semi-final match to New Zealand. Then of course we have the current outbreak of xenophobic violence. Common to all these is the issue of marginalization and exclusion.

After reading the thousands of words written on this issue and the question of transformation, one thing is patently clear: that transformation means different things to different people. Or, as Lewis Carroll put it in Alice through the Looking Glass – ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’.

So Xolela Mangcu thinks it’s race that is the fundamental issue, in response to others who think that class has been missing in this debate. Others think that the economy is the fundamental question; others think that land is of primary consideration. And then there are others who think that if we create an open and equal opportunity society the consequences of the past will right themselves automatically.

Historically the idea of transformation emerged as a response to the inadequacy of the binary opposition of reform versus revolution in the post-1990 conjuncture. Revolution would have seen the old system destroyed and a radically new system replacing it; reform would have seen an adaptation of the existing order to accommodate the demands of the majority of South Africans. Thus the notion of ‘transformation’ is the outcome of a negotiated compromise settlement at Codesa which ensured South Africa’s stable transition to democracy. Transformation within this context was the weapon meant to ensured that a compromised political transition translated into a broader and more fundamental social change in this interregnum, where to use the words of Antonio Gramsci –‘the old has not yet died and the new had not yet been born’. This is a delicate time in the history of any nation in transition where there is a contest for hegemony by the old and the new – where the new want a stake in the system, or to transform the system, and the old want to preserve their power and privilege and the status quo. Of course one can never predict the outcome of this struggle or that of transformation. There is always the danger – one which Gramsci called transformismo – which roughly equates to the cooption of threatening ideas in a particular social context, in order to create consensus and maintain the dominance of the hegemonic group. Put another way the leading class in society absorbs, translates and articulates the demands of some of the dominated sectors in order to better defuse them. In Gramsci’s analysis the formation of a new ruling class through transformism ‘involved the gradual but continuous absorption … of the active elements … from antagonistic groups’ in a process whereby ‘the absorption of the enemy’s elites means their decapitation’. This meant that the new system gave the ruling elite a stake in the new system in what passed for transformation. Some would call this necessary to maintain stability, as happened in Italy where the leftist radicals were coopted into government and which informed Gramsci’s analysis. Jeff Rudin puts this in the context of our debates around transformation at UCT:

‘Collegial governance has, on balance, reinforced rather than undone white domination and it has sheltered racist attitudes and practices. Many black staff and students find the university to be a hostile space in which a degree of mutilation of the self is part of the price that has to be paid to keep going’.

Transformation is thus both a process and an outcome to ensure that society fundamentally changes the way in which it operates in order to grant the majority (or disempowered) population an equal stake in the system. Of course what this system constitutes requires another critical discussion. Democracy is one aspect of this change – but democracy here refers to democratizing all spheres of social life and an empowerment of those hitherto disempowered; not the democracy that actually disempowers.

This is where the liberal notion of ‘equal opportunity society’ falls flat. One cannot simply take a society with a long history of racial discrimination, marginalization and dispossession, and the next day expect them to compete on an equal footing with those who have had access to the best education, finances, health services, resources, networks and experiences. That power relations reproduce themselves is axiomatic. Historical resources are used by the dominant class to enter, entrench, extend and perpetuate their positions of power and privilege, consequently keeping the weak and marginalised out of this circle of privilege. Poverty similarly reproduces itself through unemployment, poor housing and health care, poor education, lack of role models and networks. This cycle, as is historically evident, is reproduced through generations benefiting a particular class and/or race – where the rich become wealthier and remain largely white, and the poor become poorer and remain largely black. This has been scientifically confirmed in Thomas Piketty’s landmark published study, Capital in the 21st Century.  It takes a momentous committment and process to change this vicious cycle of exclusion so that all members of society have equal access to resources and, importantly, realise their full potential. Trickle-down economics will not make a dent in the transformation process.

Apartheid was no simple racism or separate development that can be righted in a short space of time.  It was social engineering on a grostesque scale. Apartheid was a form of racial capitalism that simply treated black people as cheap labour and nurtured them as ‘hewers of wood and carriers of water’ – this was the biblical phrase used by Hendrick Verwoerd to describe black people . It was a form of capitalism that used legislation including the poll tax to force black people off their subsistence farms, forced them to engage in wage-labour, and dislocated males and females from their families through pass laws. Men and women saw their families once or twice a year: fracturing families, destroying traditional family relationships, child-rearing, African traditional life and decimating local economies. Starvation wages and illnesses associated with mining were the lot of the miners eking out a pitiful existence on the margins of urban localities– and who were simply dumped back to their homes when they were too ill to continue working. Marikana in its dastardly form was a picnic compared to the lot of mineworkers and other workers over centuries.

Transformation in this context requires reverse social engineering to level the playing fields so that those who are excluded are included, those who are denied opportunities are given them, and those whose access has been blocked are given first access. This assumes critical proportions in a society as unequal as ours. Our societies are variously divided into the pre-modern and post-modern, rural and urban, the employed and unemployed, black and white, rich and poor. Within this context the tools of transformation that we seem to rely on are Black Economic Empowerment, Employment Equity, preferential university admission and quotas in sports teams. Unfortunately these mostly benefit the already privileged.

We would be mistaken to think that those born into privilege or those who have acquired it (some through their own enterprise) are going to relinquish it easily. Of course none would question the legitimacy of transformation, but few would be willing to give up their privilege or at least share it. As Steven Friedman writes about the Rhodes Statue – and here may I remind you that Friedman is not speaking about the right wing elements, but rather about liberals:

But the controversy is really about something deeper — the racial denialism of a strong strand of South African liberalism. Black students and academics are angry because, 20 years after the end of apartheid, they remain second-class citizens on most campuses: black academics remain a small fraction of teaching staff, while the writings of black thinkers are relegated to the margins. Most students are black but the world in which they study is distinctly white. This shows how deep-rooted the attitudes that underpinned apartheid are — and it points a finger at a form of liberalism that has washed its hands of racism while continuing to practise it. It is no accident that the protests are happening on the campuses of English-speaking “liberal” universities, which have long claimed to be victims of racism: it is precisely at those institutions that race is kept alive by denying it’.

So transformation importantly requires an acknowledgment of the black experience, black hurt, its pain, its consequences and its reproduction and the exclusion of its culture, values and history in our discourse. Without that transformation would remain superficial and not address the core issues that cause periodic ructions in our communities. Having said that, we need to remember that fundamentally there will be no substantive transformation unless socio-economic transformation occurs. It is ultimately about the economy.

This brings me to the second point regarding transformation, which is that by purely focusing on race, we miss the dimension of class and power. This is important because the GINI coefficient demonstrates that South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet. BEE has created the enrichment of a few not the empowerment of the majority. Capital has granted access to those in political power in order to leverage some privilege rather than empower ordinary workers, foremost amongst them their own labour force. How much more effect BEE would be if it compelled employers to grant some stake in their business to their own workers. Creating black millionaires and billionaires through BEE simply entrenches the existing class and power structure without addressing the upliftment of the majority of black people. These black capitalists are simply absorbed into the system doing little to empower other black people as predicted by Gramsci’s transformismo. Cyril Ramaphosa and Marikana are a case in point – where he seemingly played a role in the massacre of striking workers. Show me one beneficiary of BEE that has changed the nature of power relations, of labour relations or bucked the system (unless they have been personally aggreived).

Similarly much of the concern around the Rhode statue and the ructions at UCT and elsewhere are largely, but not exclusively middle-class concerns. Black academics want promotion, students want access and privileges. Of serious concern is exclusion of black students as a result of not being able to afford the fees. Working people and the unemployed, who are stared down by Rhodes from his perch care less whether his statue falls or remains. Killing and removing the dead is easy – hence UCT’s easy capitulation on the removal of Rhodes statue. More difficult is to challenge and eradicate the ideas of Rhodes which are very much alive at UCT – of racism, liberalism, of privilege and workers exploitation. Symbolism does not translate into substantive transformation. Will promoting black staff and students at UCT make for a better society or a society that cares for its poor and really disadvantaged or like BEE just create a stake for them in the existing power system. Thus Xolela Mangcu is fundamentally wrong in simply invoking race as the most important arbiter in this conflict. As Jeff Rudin says of those obsessed only with race:

Colour-coding access to scarce resources is the main hallmark of the new, post-Apartheid, non-racial South Africa. This colour-coded access to wealth and/or promotion is, of course, enormously important to those who benefit, many of whom are not without legitimate grievances. But for everyone else – the vast majority of South Africans – it makes not a jot of difference, for as long as the class structure of South African capitalism remains untouched. Creating black billionaires and millionaires through BEE further entrenches this class structure. Similarly, making university staff all black is plainly important to the people concerned but, in itself, does nothing to promote the interests of everyone else that’s left behind in the inequality that makes our country a world-beater.

So far – with all too few exceptions in some universities – there’s precious little to show that black staff are any more disposed to promoting the radical societal changes required by workers – who still suffer the legacy of Rhodes’ cheap labour policies and practices – the unemployed and the other battalions of the increasingly restless poor and disadvantaged.

Economic transformation is fundamental. Racial desegration will not bring about economic transformation. But economic transformation will go a long way in desegregation and bringing about substantive social transformation.

My third point is that transformation requires a fundamental restructuring of how power is constituted in our society. We cannot simply reproduce the apartheid power relations with black faces. We need a fundamental shift in how power is exercised and diffused throughout society. Currently we have a ruling party instead of a serving party:  A party that operates as a democratic dictatorship (or democratic centralism) instead of a model of participatory democracy. Majoritarianism has been falsely equated with democracy. While acknowledging the merits of the proportional representation system we currently have, the major problem is that no individual is accountable to his or her constituency or the public– but is rather beholden to the party and all of its policies. These parties are in turn beholden to its funders where such funders are hidden from the public. We thus need to support the current campaign for transparency in political party funding, which all the parties currently oppose. Our current power elites have simply fitted into the model of the past with all the trappings of privilege. We expected better. Even the Trade Union leadership, currently consumed in its own battles is oblivious to the dire circumstances that people in Khayalitsha daily confront, for example – with no access to santitation, high crime rates and poor policing, poor schooling and poor amenities. Those in power are far removed from people’s daily realities. Our ruling party spends more time defending the President than serving the nation. In doing this they could destroy all the institutions that protect our functioning democracy: SCOPA, the Public Protector, the NPA, the Hawks, the judiciary,  SAPS and the Intelligence Agencies. Through cadre deployment and corruption we have seen the destruction of Eskom, SAA, the municipalities and a host of other institutions where corruptions seems to be the norm with no firm visible action taken against perpetrators. Political cover is given to the guilty – the Amigos case just one such example. We also currently view with alarm the decimation of COSATU.

This new form of power has avoided any degree of political accountability by using its power as the majority party and through the use of a simple obfuscatory mechanism called The Commission of Inquiry or what Dale McKinley sarcastically calls the Omission of Inquiry. He further states:

“Amongst its many other attributes, South Africa could arguably be called the Commission capital of the world. While there is no official list of how many Commissions of Inquiry there have been in the 20 years since 1994, suffice to say that the numbers are impressive. In the last 14 years alone there have been no less than 10 national-level, high profile Commissions of Inquiry – five of which have yet to run their course – accompanied by scores of others emanating from the executives and departments at national, provincial and municipal levels. What is a great deal more in doubt though is whether all these Commissions have achieved anything other than to soak up large amounts of public monies, to control and manipulate public opinion and attention, to avoid political accountability and individual responsibility, to cover-up criminal behaviour, and generally act as vehicles for doing little to nothing?”

 The findings of these Commission’s are presented to the President and executive, who more often than attempt to conceal their findings through invoking state security legislation or use it to fight political battles. These commissions include the Khampepe Commission into the 2002 Zimbabwean elections; 2004 Hefer Commission – set up to investigate allegations of spying against the then head of the National Director of Public Prosecutions; the Khampepe Commission of Inquiry into the affairs of the Directorate of Special Operations (Scorpions) in 2006. The 2006 Matthews Commission on Intelligence; the  Seriti (Arms Deal) Commission which has racked up a bill of over R300 million rand with a limited mandate in order to protect state employees; finally there is the Farlam (Marikana) Commission of Inquiry into the 2012 massacre of striking miners – the report therefrom is currently sitting with the President.

As Terry Crawford-Browne has noted “Commissions of Inquiry have traditionally become places to park a hot potato until it gets cold.”

The one Commission of Inquiry which did achieve some success was the Inquiry into Policing in Khayaletsha – which was forced by civil society actors including the SJC and Ndifuna Ukhwazi. Interestingly this Commission was opposed in court by the Minister of Police when established by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. There have been notable successes out this Commission because it was independent and initiated and monitored by Social Movements, but much more has to be achieved. This is an example of grass roots activism and democracy.

But the public is not easily fooled. South Africa has an extremely high rate of social protests that take place on a daily basis, which remain largely unreported until they affect functionality or more affluent areas. They are largely based on local issues – lack of service delivery, non-performance by local officials, crime and corruption. It is only a matter of time where this rebellion of the marginalised becomes an organic crisis and becomes more organised, more political, more widespread and more coordinated – where we begin to see a move such as the Occupy Movement or the Arab Spring which may give rise to new political formations or exploited by existing ones such as the EFF or the United Front. We have seen such protest movement remove traditional liberation movements around the world – where sentimentality gives way to disillusionment and common interests.

As Abraham Lincoln famously remarked: you can fool some of the people some of the time; all of the people some of the time; but not all of the people all of the time. That time will surely come if this government continues to ignore the poor and marginalized – a time where popular rebellion by the marginalized will engulf this country on an unprecedented scale – far worse than the high number of civil protests that we currently have.

Talking about the poor and marginalized brings me to the next point regarding transformation and that is the burning issue of xenophobia.  We have witness the most dastardly acts against people from other countries who have come to ours for various reasons – as political, social or economic refugees. These people would rather die or drown in oceans than stay in their home countries – so dire is their lot. These are acts of criminality driven by a hatred termed xenophobia. We have targeted people simply because they are different to us (or more successful). Nothing can justify such attacks against innocent people earning an honest living who come to our shores out of desperation. But these attacks don’t occur in a vacuum. They result from discontent among people regarding their lot and rather than blame those responsible lay lazy blame on outsiders. Such thinking is fuelled by those in power: be it the Zulu King or Ministers in Government who either inspire such attacks or create a veneer of justification for them. In fact the Khayalithsa Commission of Inquiry into Policing heard that crime against business owned by foreigners was twice that of local shop owners and that police stood by as Somali, Zimbabwean and other foreign owned shops were attacked and looted – pointing to a complicity by the police force.  That foreigners are succeeding in business on our shores is due to our failure to create entrepreneurs or skills for people to succeed where others can. We should not begrudge the other, but rather aspire to their successes and learn from them. Most of these people came to our shores with very little but have succeed through hard-work and establishing networks for mutual benefit. There is no reason why we cannot do the same. I will give you simple case: my helper at home spoke about a Somali trader in her area who she used to purchase from. She described him as one of the kindest people she knew. She had numerous burglaries in her house and he used to voluntarily come and fix her gate and other broken items without cost. When he was attacked she showed some sympathy but  laughed about it –  not the outrage one would expect in such circumstances. This was because regardless of how good he was, he was of the ‘other’. This ‘othering’ creates a banality in our evil. It robs our country of a civility. Xenophobia is world-wide phenomenon, it’s just that with our experience of apartheid we expect better.

This ‘othering’ and consequent demonization is a historical phenonemenon with catastrophic consequences. Frightening is that those who have been victims become its perpetrators. But more importantly there is an ever closing circle of ‘othering’. As UCT Social Anthropology Professor Francis B Nyamnjoh writes:

this diminishing circles of inclusion dictates that the next amakwerekwere, foreigners or strangers, is always one layer below the obvious one’.

Today it is the foreigners, tomorrow it could be Indians and Coloureds, then it could be gays and lesbians, then it could be the disabled, then women …. This hierarchy of race, class and ‘othering’ continues to close down on those who are more vulnerable, as if the dehumanization must be a continuing cycle: that because I am dehumanized, I must similarly act in an inhumane way towards others below me in the social hierarchy. This ‘diminishing circle of inclusion’ is poetically and presciently captured by one of Hitler’s victims, Pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

Professor Nyamnhoh invokes the Nando add which was banned by the SABC to demonstrate our common history:

The ad starts with black Africans illegally crossing a barbed-wire border fence into South Africa. There is a voiceover and each time the voice calls out a name, the group of people who represent that particular identity are transformed into a cloud of smoke, as follows: You know what is wrong with South Africa: all you foreigners. You must all go back to where you came from – you Cameroonians, Congolese, Pakistanis, Somalis, Ghanaians and Kenyans. And of course you Nigerians and you Europeans. Let’s not forget you Indians and Chinese. Even you Afrikaners. Back to Swaziland you Swazis, Lesotho you Sothos, Vendas, Zulus, everybody. In the end, only one person is left standing, a San man who, armed with a bow and arrow and ready to explore the wilderness, confronts the voiceover with these words: “I’m not going anywhere. You found us here.” The ad concludes with the voiceover saying: “Real South Africans love diversity.”

He sees this advert ‘as articulating an idea of identity and belonging in South Africa that is both conscious and cognisant of the histories of mobilities of peoples that have made South Africa possible, and that remains open to new and ongoing mobilities. capturing the spirit of our nation’.

These xenophobic attacks are not only against foreigners, rather they attack all we stand for as a rainbow nation, including the notion of inclusion The justification provided for these acts of xenophobia are vacuous. Firstly foreigners make up only 4% of our workforce. Secondly those are targeted are black foreigners not white foreigners (or what we rather call expats) – not that, that would be acceptable. Secondly, the challenge to local businesses in the townships come from the monopolies and big supermarket chains, not the Somali or Nigerian businessmen who are only small time traders – yet are targeted. The point I am emphasising is that xenophobia feeds on the already marginalized.

The issues I have raised today, including the need for transformation in dealing with race, economic disparity, the constitution of power and xenophobia point to a South Africa where we are struggling to find and adhere to a common set of values and to forge a shared sense of national identity. Instead of maturely engaging, debating and discussing around our painful, complex, and uncomfortable past seeking genuine transformation, we use this past as an excuse to mask our current failures, corruption and incompetence.

We have failed to include the majority in this new dispensation – who continue to feel dispossessed, marginalized and alienated. As a result of this sense of frustration and despair, despite our peaceful transition to democracy violence is part and parcel of who we have become. As Barney Mthomboti puts it:

 We are a damaged society. Violence is part of our DNA. We resort to violence at the slightest provocation — in our homes, at work and in the streets. People are killed for a cellphone or a few coins in their pockets. Women are abused and murdered by their partners. We resort to violence as an alcoholic turns to booze for solace. And we’ve learnt to justify it. When people commit crime, we say it’s because they are poor. A form of redistribution, I guess.

 In conclusion I quote extensively  Rhodes University vice-chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela since I cannot put the challenges before us more eloquently than him when he spoke at the Universities graduation ceremony a few weeks ago describing those who were running our country ‘as people of questionable moral and ethical character’. He says:

‘The noble qualities and values of personal integrity‚ honesty‚ humility‚ compassion‚ respect for each other‚ fairness‚ forgiveness‚ empathy‚ selfless dedication and willingness to put others first‚ that were so beautifully exemplified by President Nelson Mandela‚ have given way to venality‚ a complete lack of integrity‚ moral decadence‚ profligacy‚ rampant corruption‚ deceit‚ and duplicity.”

He continued:  “SA had lost its moral compass by voting in people who have no sense of the difference between right and wrong‚ just and unjust‚ fair and unfair‚ ethical and unethical to positions of significance‚ power and influence. We have become a society in which obscene and unbridled opulence exists alongside debilitating poverty and deprivation; a society that relentlessly promotes a culture of untrammelled greed and conspicuous consumption above the public and common good; a culture that judges one’s worth by the amount of personal wealth amassed.”

 “South Africa had become a society where far too many people were mired in desperate daily routines of survival‚ while at the same time‚ crass materialism and vulgar and ostentatious displays of personal wealth had become fashion statements for the political elite.

 Speaking directly to the 2015 graduates he said: I urge you to go out and make a difference in a society characterised by incertitude‚ cynicism and despair. My appeal to you is that you become an active‚ engaged and concerned citizen who takes a special interest in and concern for those who are living in the social and economic margins of our society. We cannot fail them; we dare not fail them.”

 This is also our challenge.

I end with a prayer for peace, justice, reconciliation, hope and freedom; a prayer I hope all of you recognize:

Lord bless Africa May her glory be lifted high Hear our petitions Lord bless us, your children

Lord we ask You to protect our nation Intervene and end all conflicts Protect us, protect our nation Protect South Africa

Out of the blue of our heavens Out of the depths of our seas Over our everlasting mountains Where the echoing crags resound

Sounds the call to come together, And united we shall stand, Let us live and strive for freedom, In South Africa our land.

 To those who have no recognised it, I remind you that this is our beautiful national anthem to which we do violence every single day.

Shuaib Manjra, Cape Town, 24th April 2014


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