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South Africa must resolve its challenges with integrity

- Judith February

It’s been a week of sorrow, where we weep for what the world has lost.

n the United States, civil rights leader John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer. With sweet, almost scripted irony, he died a day before the birthday of Nelson Mandela, who died in 2013. It was also a week in which Mandela’s own daughter Zindzi, herself a product of all that was lost during the struggle for apartheid, died.

And then on Wednesday we received the sad news that the last surviving Rivonia trialist, Andrew Mlangeni, had also died. Mlangeni spent 26 years in prison and lived in Soweto until his death. He described himself as the ‘backroom boy’ of the struggle, working behind the scenes yet prepared to sacrifice his life for our collective freedom.

One could not help pondering on the lives of these three extraordinary men this week.

Remembering Madiba felt different this year, because it was different. As UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres delivered the Annual Nelson Mandela lecture on the weekend, virtually, from the UN headquarters in New York, the way in which the world has changed in the past few months was even more palpable than before.

The Guterres lecture was apposite, titled as it was, ‘Tackling the inequality pandemic: a new social contract for a new era’. While its focus was a new world, he also pointedly said:

“But populism, nationalism, extremism, racism and scapegoating will only create new inequalities and divisions within and between communities; between countries, between ethnicities, between religions.”

These words seemed appropriate as countries around the world battle to retain institutional integrity on the back of populism and scapegoating.

This populism has many forms and we find it seeping into governments and then institutions.

Cas Mudde, professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, says the following:

“An ideology like fascism involves a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t; it calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. Populists are dividers, not uniters. They split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,” and say they’re guided by the “will of the people.”

Populists view themselves and their cause as “essentially moral”.

In a sense the genius of populism is its appeal to simple binaries as opposed to the often inconvenient slow work of complexity.

As South Africa attempts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen the fragility of our institutions laid bare. We face the pandemic while the kitty is empty and with an economy in deep, deep crisis.

Our institutions, mostly ravaged and hollowed out by the Zuma years, are unable to respond in this crisis. The ANC, for its part, ethically bankrupt, cannot lead us out of it and President Ramaphosa seems to lead ponderously or aimlessly, depending on who to believe. The ANC’s recent economic plan shows a party bereft of ideas.

And yet, if we cast our minds back to South Africa, December 2007, and that distinct moment of populism, it was always inevitable that we would reach this point.

Jacob Zuma was styled as the ‘unstoppable tsunami’. He would be the new saviour of the working class. His cause was surely one we could all get behind? Those who opposed him were ‘clever blacks’, the judges were ‘counter-revolutionary’ and there were simple answers to complex problems.

Of course, most populist leaders find the source of their strength in exploiting an original grievance or creating the classic divisions of ‘them and us’ which ultimately calls forth a kind of victimhood amongst ‘followers’.

And so it was that Zuma ascended to the very highest office in the land. When that happened, a few of the ramparts of the Constitution broke. The law was undermined. After all, the ‘original grievance’ Zuma exploited was his axing by Thabo Mbeki on account of arms deal-related corruption. Zuma stood for every victim of poverty and inequality, such was his own grievance. Once the law was undermined, institutions undergirding the rule of law would be similarly undermined. The looting would start and seemingly continue unabated until the ANC realised it needed to act or it would lose an election.

By then it was too late - institutions had been destroyed - from Sars to the Public Protector and many more. Zuma sought to stack these institutions with those loyal to him and tried to wear down those like then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela who was a rare and principled voice during those years.

At times, the populism has extended to universities, schools, sports bodies and other institutions where thoughtfulness and reason have often had to succumb to the unreason of a ‘political’ moment. But the modus operandi of the populist leader is usually the same. Julius Malema too exploits grievance perfectly and also uses the ‘popular commotion’ to rally his cause. He is the ultimate ‘factious man’ Hamilton talks about, railing against capitalism while he himself enjoys its spoils.

During the #FeesMustFall movement some of this populism was also on display. Even while the original grievance was more than justified, some of the means to the end goal harked back to the unprincipled approach of Polokwane. The ‘debates’ on decolonisation of curricula, for instance, often became intensely personalised - some who disagreed with the loudest viewpoints afraid to speak and so silenced, sometimes hounded out of institutions or simply preferring to leave quietly. The ‘for or against’ mantra intensified as individual academics’ reputations were shredded on open fora or on social media. Facts often became a casualty during this time and universities have mostly emerged weaker rather than stronger. The stress it caused is a matter for painful record when mentioned in the report on the tragic death of UCT’s Professor Bongani Mayosi.

And so amid the noise of now, it is easy as Guardian columnist Keenan Malik wrote to become overwhelmed by what he calls “the rawness of anger”. There is also the erosion of the capacity for both self-reflection and self-restraint, a feature of recent public debate, Malik says.

Malik may have been referring more broadly to three things – the era in which we live, marked by animus, the desire for easy answers and the toxic nature of the public discourse.

Animus. A word with a twin meaning. The Romans used it to refer to the very core of a person, one’s soul or spirit. In today’s lexicon, we use it in its original form to indicate what might well be related to its original meaning but has a far harsher undertone. It is used to express a rather more personal ill will or hostility towards someone in debate or name-calling. In a world in which the President of the United States weaponises Twitter to name-call and slur his political opponents, everyone has license to do the same it seems. Lies abound and positions are entrenched. Any scan of Twitter and other social media platforms from around the world is proof of this destructive hostility towards those who may hold a different opinion.

We see it in South Africa where our society is awash with demands to fix what is broken, yet our public discourse, and indeed discourse around the world, could do with that rare commodity – restraint. Here, as we try to grapple with not only a global pandemic but race, power blackouts (let’s call them what they are because load shedding is a euphemism which is singularly unhelpful), land and our triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty, we need also to restrain ourselves from the immediacy of the shoddy ‘quick fix’. We need to somehow seek ways to balance both affect and reason in the public debate if we are to resolve our challenges with integrity. There has indeed been too much noise and clamour invoked by fractious men (and women) which passes muster for worth.

The generation of Madiba, Lewis and Mlangeni knew how to keep constant the principles which informed their activism. Their lifelong sacrifice made them more attuned to a world in which one could sit down and speak to ‘the enemy’ when the moment was right. For Mandela and Mlangeni that meant negotiating with the apartheid regime with the restraint required. They also understood the value of reason and certainly for Mandela, though he showed a few flashes of anger during the negotiations at Codesa, restraint and discipline in his words and his actions were what gained him the respect of his own people and millions around the world. For Lewis it meant serving the people of Georgia in the US House of Representatives from 1987 until his passing on 17 June.

This week was a reminder of the tawdry Zuma years which appealed to grievances in our society and brought a charlatan to power. One who sought to divide, who provided easy answers to complex issues of transformation and economic wellbeing, who whipped up men and women on waves of sentiment and lies and who exploited the coalition of grievance for his own nefarious purposes.

But this week was also a reminder that the truth will always be laid bare, often not as soon as many would hope and often as in the case of our country, only after great damage has been wrought to the fabric of society and its institutions. This week the memory of John Lewis, Madiba and Andrew Mlangeni show us which values will endure.

As Michelle Obama said in her tribute to Lewis, his life was filled with ‘weight and consequence’. And so it was for Mlangeni and his comrade, Madiba.

No place in the shallows for these men; giants of democracy.

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