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Nothing about democratic progress is inevitable

- Judith February

Last week in very different contexts, the United States and South Africa witnessed the funeral as a spectacle; a national rite of passage.

Two men - Andrew Mlangeni and John Lewis - both tied by a cruel fate of the struggle for human rights, were buried in what is a turbulent and confused moment; a time of disease and unease across the world.

Both were gentle souls, yet they could claim the fire in their bellies when the moment called for courage and truth. Both funerals put the lives of these men on full display. Their life’s choices could more than bear the scrutiny of the generation they now leave behind.

In the case of Lewis, his casket travelled through all the places which held meaning and significance in his life - from his birthplace in Troy, Alabama, across the infamous Edmund Pettus bridge, to Washington DC. Lewis became the first black lawmaker to lie in state at the Capitol’s rotunda until he finally made his way back to his roots - the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, Georgia, where Martin Luther King himself had preached.

Both Lewis and Mlangeni’s funerals were overshadowed by the present and the circumstances in which they were held.

In the US and South Africa, the coronavirus rages forth and the contrasts between past and present were immediately evident.

The life of Lewis stood in stark contrast to the bankrupt presidency of Donald Trump, a man of no principle. Lewis’s passing also signalled the end of the great generation of the civil rights activists.

As former President Barack Obama delivered his eulogy, marked by a quiet anger which coursed through it and his veins, the mourners were roused. Obama was unambiguous in his criticism of the Trump administration, of voter suppression and the systemic racism which caused the death of George Floyd and many other black men and women.

In South Africa, Mlangeni’s passing truly signalled the end of our great generation of freedom fighters. He was the last of the Rivonia trialists, the last who held the memory and the last flame to be put out.

How tragic then that Mlangeni’s funeral became a spectacle in the worst possible sense. It started with the ANC’s memorial in his honour being led by former President Zuma. After all, it was Zuma who brought the country to its knees on the back of almost a decade of corruption. It is well-known that Mlangeni bemoaned those within the ANC who “were no longer interested in improving the lives of our people” and specifically spoke out against the corruption of the Zuma years.

ANC stalwarts and veterans penned an open letter about the inappropriateness of such a gesture and sought to remind their own party that it was Mlangeni who spoke out vociferously against Zuma’s leadership and called for his resignation. That the ANC deemed it fit to have Zuma lead the tributes to a man as principled as Mlangeni is a disgrace. But, we should not be surprised. This is what the ANC has become.

At Mlangeni’s official funeral in Soweto, President Ramaphosa paid tribute to this humble stalwart of the struggle for freedom when he said, “Andrew Mlangeni was never afraid to confront the vices that can too easily engulf a nation emerging from a broken past”.

But if we know anything about the ANC it is that it is shameless about the corruption within its ranks.

And if we needed another reminder, the funeral itself was clouded in controversy with Crocia, the company that secured the tender for the funeral, mired in allegations of inflating invoices in relation to the funerals of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Zola Skweyiya and Billy Modise. Public Works and Infrastructure Director-General, Sam Vukela, has now been suspended.

Then, as leitmotif for all that is wrong with South Africa and the impunity so rife amongst those who are meant to serve the public, two policemen were seen smoking openly at the funeral during the time of COVID-19 and a tobacco ban.

The disrespect. The disregard. What other words are there?

But in a week where the President’s own spokesperson, Khusela Diko, said she and her husband made an ‘error of judgment’ when he tendered for a contract to supply PPE worth R125 million to the Gauteng Department of Health, and where stories abounded of the children of Ace Magashule and Nomvula Mokonyane allegedly benefitting from tenders for COVID-19 related contracts, there seemed to be no bottom low enough for the ANC to scrape. Nothing remains untouched by the predators, determined to loot every last cent.

In his weekly newsletter Ramaphosa decried this kind of corruption, calling it “the actions of scavengers”. He went on to say, “It is like a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey”.

Ramaphosa recently signed a special proclamation “to investigate any unlawful or improper conduct in the procurement of goods and services during the national state of disaster”. This is a step forward, but of course what the Zuma years also left behind was institutions hollowed out and unfit for purpose.

Head of the NPA, Shamila Batohi, pleaded with Parliament not so long ago that her budget not be cut. In addition, we know that SARS and FICA both mentioned by Ramaphosa as part of the special centre (also including the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, National Prosecuting Authority, the Hawks, Crime Intelligence and the SAPS Detective Service, South African Revenue Service, Special Investigating Unit and the State Security Agency to deal with COVID-19 related corruption) have been substantially weakened and are trying fitfully to rebuild.

These hollowed-out institutions so seriously in need of repair must now find the wherewithal to act with speed against corruption.

As Mlangeni’s funeral reminded us, however, looking back can be helpful, if only to remind ourselves of the journey.

Corruption is nothing new to the ANC and so reaching as far back as the arms deal in 1999 and the subsequent cover-up, the Chancellor House party-funding scandal, Polokwane and its discontents, Thabo Mbeki’s call for a ‘new cadre’ within the ANC and the disbanding of the Scorpions in 2009, to name but a few, helps us to understand the venality of the present more clearly. It was Kgalema Motlanthe who said in 2005 that the ‘cancer of corruption’ was eating away at the party.

Then came the untruth of the Zuma years and state capture. Now in a time of global pandemic, the kitty is bare and we stand with begging bowls before the IMF and the World Bank.

Financially and ethically bankrupt we are.

Ramaphosa for his part calls us to a ‘new sense of accountability’. For that we will need not only the state to reinvent and remake itself, but more specifically, the ANC.

Can Ramaphosa lead that process or has the ANC simply become unfit for purpose? If that is the case, then it behoves us as citizens to decide whether we can and should entrust power to it again.

As the lives of Mlangeni and Lewis showed us, nothing about democratic progress is inevitable.

Lewis’s reminder is true as much for the US as it is for South Africa when he wrote:

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

So we are in an urgent moment which calls for the very opposite of despair, for greater mobilisation and the true awakening of citizen activism for progressive values and corruption-free societies to thrive.

Judith February is a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'.