After 25 years of South African democracy, the achievement of political emancipation has been brought into sharp focus as having the nature of a Pyrrhic victory: so much of the ideals of the anti-apartheid movement were given up to private economic interests in exchange for political freedom and peace that the trajectory of the country’s socio-economic development has veered far off course; so far off course that it appears that mainstream political discourse has been rendered oblivious to the original humanist ideals of the ‘struggle’.
Increasing economic inequality has been the most obvious, and widespread, product of South Africa’s political emancipation. The economically and politically well connected elite have gained the most; while blacks, whites, and people of every shade of skin colour in between, stand at traffic lights begging for coins, food or recyclable material. It’s as if, during the interregnum, which may be referred to as the CODESA years, that resulted in ‘the negotiated settlement’, some mysterious force stripped the original resistance movement of its ideals and humanist imagination for which it had so fervently fought to make a reality. And the result of the loss of that revolutionary imagination and humanistic agitation is that economic hardship and poverty, instead of economic upliftment, has been the great leveller of South African society. The same applies equally well to immigrants: among foreigners we may also observe the clear divide between the rich and the rest.
In their blind striving to amass wealth and influence, leaders within both the political and business spheres, have trodden rough shod over their constituencies to satisfy their cravings for power and the amassment of wealth to support their lavish lifestyles. They have indeed lost the plot. Evidence of it abounds in the failure of the provision of decent social goods and public services; with a concomitant trend towards the privatisation of that which ought to remain in the hands of the State; and the State in the hands of its citizens.
Social goods and public services include such things as water supply, electricity supply, safe and reliable public transport, public education, public health services, law enforcement, and access to justice and legal services. These services ought to be publicly owned, and not privatised. They need to be protected as part of the ‘commons’, which we collectively need for the support of a healthy and productive society. Our natural resources (including mineral wealth, which is privately exploited) and natural spaces (such as the Karoo, which is under the threat of fracking for shale gas) also form part of the commons. The government’s apathy with respect to the protection of our natural commons and the provision of public services and the integrity of their delivery – in short, the failure to respect and protect the socio-cultural commons, at various levels of governance – is obvious. The richer you are, the more insulated you can afford to be against the consequences of the failures of the State to act propitiously in the interest of the welfare of its citizens.
Cyril Ramaphosa does not offer hope of any meaningful interventions to rectify this state of inaction in the interests of the populace. There is something that may be described as an elitist, political inertia that has infected the dominant political parties: an unwillingness to shift gear to propel change along a more humanistic trajectory because to do so would mean that they would have to dare to be truly ‘honourable members’ who actually give a damn about the well-being of the majority of people in whose interest they are supposed to be governing.
But the problem does not only lay at the feet of our politicians. The political inertia, to which I have referred, is sustained by a general mindset of elitism and consumerism within the middle- and upper-classes in South Africa. The country is mired in a bog of neoliberal thinking and economic policies because its leaders – political and corporate – are seduced by the mirage of ‘the good life’ that it promises. Ensconced in the insulation of their wealth and privilege, they are oblivious to the fact that they are ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.
The job to make real the kind of South Africa, for which the resistance movement was struggling, should, therefore, be taken up by us, the People of South Africa. To effect change, we need a radical shift in our own thinking; which demands, in one sense, a generalised attitude of relative minimalism, relative self-denial and humility. Immersed in a culture of instant gratification and individualised pleasure – an environment sustained by corporate advertising – the values that constrain consumerism and support holistic social health, could be the foundation of our personal, private activism in order to break the deadlock of inertia within our own lives. While in the public sphere there needs to be a greater effort from each individual, according to their means, for the protection of the commons and to agitate for the provision of high quality social services. Citizens need to actively hold leaders accountable, and even step up to take on the responsibility of leadership themselves if need be; it really is about “being the change you want to see in the world” – but only after you have thoroughly grasped the ideals of Renaissance humanism.
We are now, in a sense, back at the moment of Mbeki’s presidency with one important difference: the socio-economic conditions which ought to have been addressed at that time are now much worse. Why is there, then, no concomitant increase in the government’s urgency to solve those issues? And can we even believe that there is a genuine desire, from within the South African government, to support the development of a society marked by equality and justice?
We go on from year to year thinking that it is someone else’s job to make the key changes that will bring about reductions in crime, increases in public safety, better quality education, more jobs paying a decent living wage, etc. But the changes we look for starts with a change in our collective mindset: to adopt and live out the value system that eschews the privileging of self over collective, social prosperity. Will 2020 again be a State Of No Action for us as ordinary citizens, or will it be the seminal year in which we, collectively, begin shifting our state of mind, in order to change the State in which we live towards becoming a more humanistic?