South Africa

Analysis: Motlanthe’s Drakensberg conference shows the way forward

Over the weekend, a collection of what you could call the nation’s great and good found themselves in the freezing Drakensberg, to debate the way forward for South Africa, hosted by the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation. To sum up the stated aim would be to suggest that after the destruction and mess of the last 10 years or so, it is time to try to work out what route we pick from here. It is not an easy task, the problems are immense, and as fundamental as asking whether people believe the state is actually legitimate.

But, there are some small rays of hope on the horizon. Perhaps the greatest sign of that hope is the simple confirmation of the fact that it is time to talk about governance again. It is easy to be depressed at our situation these days. The weekend’s load shedding, which was possibly caused by the willful sabotage of infrastructure at Eskom, which in turn had offered workers a zero percent increase precisely because of the deliberate looting of the parastatal, is an indication of how big the problems are and how deep the scars are.

On Thursday night a group of people attacked a police station at Eesterus. Considering that many people, including Francis Fukuyama, believe that the very definition of a nation state includes a monopoly on the use of force, attacks like these one might question the very survival of South Africa as a nation state.

The idea that the state has been delegitimised was something that almost ran through the thread of the conference. It was clearly stated by Dr Ivor Chipkin, who spoke about the betrayal of the promise. Once of his revelations was about how Transnet had hedged big, and surely corrupt, deals through the company’s pension fund. On Sunday, former Transnet and Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe scored the dubious honour of “gracing” the front pages of both the Sunday Times and the City Press.

In the space as fraught with danger as this one, the question is how the state can be re-legitimised. One way to do this is to hold an election, to simply hit the “reset” button.

But that is unlikely to happen simply because it is not currently in the interests of the ANC to do so, in that it may end up losing Gauteng and North West, while the situation in KwaZulu-Natal is just impossible to predict right now.

Even if that were not the case, if there was an election in the next few months, it is also possible that the real outcome would be that very few people would vote as the state has become too de-legitimised to so many voters.

In other words, whoever emerges as the victor (and it would almost certainly still be the ANC) may emerge with no real mandate. That might be even worse in the longer run.

Worse than that, it may even be possible now that many people simply believe that the Constitution itself is illegitimate. Fixing that problem would never be easy.

That means then that the real task for those in leadership positions (Mr President, we’re looking at you...) is to act, and do so decisively. It’s enough to talk, it’s more important to act. There are signs that he is trying to do exactly that.

On Friday he announced a new panel to examine the role of the State Security Agency. His inclusion of Professor Jane Duncan, a huge critic of the recent intrusive behaviour of the SSA (and perhaps the nation’s best thinker on issues of privacy and security) is an important step in this regard. But that kind of intervention takes place at a high level. It is not going to mean much to those Eesterus residents, or those in Vuwani who have burnt schools to the ground, because there is no other symbol of the state to burn.

The very fact that the ANC has not been able to agree on a new premier for North West (the party’s national executive committee is due to meet and will probably discuss this issue) shows exactly how difficult it is for Ramaphosa to act. It is also surely time for the good justices of the Constitutional Court to finally release their decision on the National Prosecuting Authority, and give finality on whether advocate Shaun Abrahams is in fact the National Director of Public Prosecutions.

As an aside, Justice Minister Michael Masutha, a Zuma appointee, appeared to suggest he had no problem with keeping Abrahams in that position in an interview with SAfm. Once the NPA is finally uncaptured, this process of doing could pick up some steam.

In the end, it’s really down to actions, and actions across the country in multiple ways. To do this, there needs to be a network of people who are acting, not necessarily in concert, but certainly in the same, constructive, direction. At this stage, we may have to ask whether there are actually enough people who are prepared, willing and able, to do this. Certainly, at almost every stage in provincial and local government, they would face opposition from those already there for years.

As Ramaphosa himself put it at the conference on June 15 2018, “We cannot be proud if a whole province's government systems are going to so collapse as to lead our people into the streets protesting about sewage just spilling into the streets; where our people protest about garbage that goes uncollected...” He was talking about North West. But rebuilding that will take time. And the great fear is that that is time we might not have.

In the middle of all of this is the issue of land. Vincent Smith, the man who chairs Parliament’s committee investigating whether the Constitution should be changed to allow expropriation without compensation, also chaired the conference’s commission on this.

He was his usual businesslike self in delivering their decisions. The first, unsurprisingly, was that “Section 25 does not need to be amended. In its current form, it’s sufficient to facilitate the land reform project”.

This resonates strongly with the decisions of the ANC’s own Land Summit. The commission also said there actually too many pieces of legislation dealing with land. Interestingly, one of the main actions that is being proposed is the “urgent redistribution of state owned land” and land owned by parastatals, as well as “privately owned idle the interests of the public”.

The commission also wants proper title for those who then occupy that land. This obviously would change the game as well, as it would unlock value that is currently constrained.

Smith appears to be suggesting that there should be big changes in the land ownership patterns. This might sound scary to some, but considering how much land there is in South Africa doing nothing, it also makes sense.

To quote those in the bar who watched Siya Kolisi’s team storm to victory on June 16, “use it or lose it”. That might well stimulate the economy in interesting ways. Land owners who do nothing with their asset could be prodded into action, while those who gain some land would also use it more effectively than it is being used now.

That said, there is still likely to be strong opposition to any change from those who benefit from the current system.

But, Dear Reader, if you’ll allow me to think aloud for a moment, there could be some trade-offs that could be implemented here. It might be worth asking this question: what would be the market reaction if the law was written such that the president had to personally sign off on every act of expropriation. So, for each and every piece of land that was expropriated, the president had to sign off on it. And then Ramaphosa announced that his legal adviser on this issue would be a former Constitutional Court judge, such as Judge Albie Sachs or former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo.

Such process would certainly send the strongest possible signal that expropriation would only occur if it really was in the best interests of the country. Investors (and much of the middle-classes) appear to trust Ramaphosa, and may trust such an arrangement. There are obviously ways to finesse all of this in a way that can see proper land reform being implemented, while not threatening the fundamentals of our economy.

Running through the entire Drakensberg conference was a lament for our education system. “It is not fit for purpose” was the comment that was heard again and again. Even when it works, it is still behind the rest of the world. There were many examples of how young people should simply learn coding, how the entire world of education is changing. And yet the way that knowledge is imparted to our children is not that much different from how it was done in Victorian Britain.

The problem of education is so great, that it might be easier to simply have a series of different initiatives. You could, for example, use the existing infrastructure of schools and classrooms to simply give each child some kind of screen and access to the internet. The main role of educators then will be to draw up a system of qualifications. In the meantime, frankly, it may be time to talk about the SA Democratic Teachers Union, and the impact it is having, and has had, on consigning a generation of mostly black young people to educational oblivion.

There were, of course, many other issues that came up during the conference, many other problems that appear intractable. Still, there were participants who were also incredibly confident of the future. One of them was Roelf Meyer, the man who negotiated the post-apartheid transition with Ramaphosa. For him, it’s about leadership. And it was no surprise, in the final session of the conference, to hear Meyer’s praise of the current president.

He explained that he had spent time with Ramaphosa in the six years from 1990, and that he knew he could still trust him completely:

This man we can follow...we don’t have to quote Madiba anymore, we can quote Cyril Ramaphosa because he speaks now of the way forward”.

From someone who understands politics, and his own place in it, it was a very public gesture of support.

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe himself would have known, coming to this conference, that it was unlikely to make hard and fast prescriptions. Decisions on issues as fundamental as these are usually only made by a small group of people, far away from the constituencies that they represent; that's just a fact of life.

But hopefully some of the great and good who gathered there, may help create a narrative of what the way forward could, and should, look like. It’s about putting out ideas, and pushing them hard in the court of public opinion. If they can catch the public imagination, a consensus could well develop. The route we should follow is not outlined neatly yet, but we are beginning to move in the right general direction. DM