OPINIONISTA

Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar: South Africa’s dream of common nationhood, in danger of destruction

The South African project has perhaps been deferred or even derailed, especially in this last decade – that project has not simply dried up, festered or sagged but that dream is perhaps on the verge of exploding.

In the fight against apartheid, South Africans were united (at home and abroad) in the singular objective of confronting the amoral and repressive National Party-regime. The mass movement agitating, mobilising and working towards a free South Africa was not created overnight but rather the movement was built, connected and enabled by the efforts of many South Africans (and those that supported the idea of a free and fair South Africa). The movement was not in itself owned by a singular entity or person but rather it was driven by a democratic ethos in which the voices of people mattered. The ethos of that movement was rooted in the franchise and the moral and just fight against a repressive, racist, sexist and amoral regime that had hijacked a country from South Africans. Since 1994, the interconnectedness and deep conviction of this movement has unravelled. South Africans were galvanised in to action, but it is important to remember that they were not necessarily ad idem on every issue – they held on to their own ideologies, beliefs and viewpoints. However, they were able to confront the challenge of liberating South Africa together and were united against a common purpose. Today, South Africa is a very different place – polarisation, the politics of the stomach, tribalism, division and discontent have become the norm of our society. South Africa has very little time now for connectedness, engagement and dialogue that actually challenges entrenched beliefs or ideologies. We now have to struggle with established or entrenched positions that are rooted around political affiliation, religious affiliation, class and often race. After the lost decade of Jacob Zuma, South Africans have not simply lost ten years of opportunity, freedom and progress but rather that future was violently stolen by an elite few from millions of South Africans. The presidency of Jacob Zuma was not simply designed to extract resources for a very small minority, epitomised by the Gupta family or in the State Capture project, but also to empty out and cripple our government in service of a few. At no point did the Zuma shadow state, or its acolytes, ever contemplate or think about what was in the public interest. We must not forget that many of those acolytes continue to serve in the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Those individuals, who are deserving of our scorn, continue to act without any hindrance and at the expense of the public purse. Those acolytes do not have any sense of integrity, accountability or even a duty to serve. Simply put they will not act in the same way that former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene did. There will be no apology and there will be no resignation by these reprehensible individuals. In this new dawn, South Africans must consider in what way will we respond to the knowledge that even after the reporting by Daily Maverick’s Scorpio, amaBhungane, other journalists and the work currently being conducted in the Zondo Commission, that many of these individuals will never account. Also, that many with knowledge of their criminal and amoral deeds will continue to remain silent even when many journalists continue to uncover more sordid details about the shadow state established under the Zuma administration. This type of injustice is relentless and, in that truth, – we as South Africans must accept that we must take hold of our democracy as we did when we fought for freedom. We will need to become far more engaged in defending our democracy but also in confronting the injustice that is revealing itself each day. There is a great danger in thinking that South Africa has only lost 10 years under the leadership of Jacob Zuma. South Africa continues to bleed today. We see the restlessness across our country, the scourge of crime, the prevalence of malfeasance and corruption at every turn, the heightened polarisation and the desperation and hopelessness. This is not the first time that South Africa has had to confront this unpleasant reality. The truth is that we have had to do it at every point in our history and the collective ability to mobilise, agitate and work towards a different future must be reignited and put to work before that dream withers even more. We only need to look back to the African National Congress at its 50th National Conference in Mafikeng where it tried to deal with the so-called national question, which was reflected to a large extent in a discussion paper prepared by Zweledinga Pallo Jordan. We do not now simply wrestle with a singular national question but rather we are wrestling with a series of challenges – the extent of that national question has morphed in to something far more complex and unresolved. The Mafikeng conference was closed with the words of Thabo Mbeki when he said that the “objective to transform South Africa into a non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous democracy has not yet been achieved”. Twenty-one years later, South Africans continue to wrestle with this challenge, coupled with the rampant corruption and emptying out of the State that was overseen by the Zuma administration, his own political party and a number of individuals who still hold public office including Cabinet positions in this new dawn. Twenty years ago, in Parliament, the common national agenda was spelt out by the then deputy president Mbeki when he called on South Africans to embark on a new patriotism, which would seek to include:

  • a common fight to eradicate the legacy of apartheid;
  • a united offensive against corruption and crime;
  • concerted action to advance the interests of those least capable to defend themselves, including children, women, the disabled and the elderly;
  • an agreement about how we should protect and advance the interests of all the different cultural, language and religious groups that make up the South African population;
  • a commitment to confront the economic challenges facing our country, in a manner that simultaneously addresses issues of high and sustained growth and raising the living standards of especially the black poor;
  • an all-embracing effort to build a sense of common nationhood and a shared destiny, as a result of which we can entrench into the minds of all our people the understanding that however varied their skin complexions, cultures and life conditions, the success of each nevertheless depends on the effort the other will make to turn into reality the precept that each is his or her brother's or sister's keeper; and
  • a united view of our country's relations with the rest of the world.
The risk we face today is that inequality, poverty and unemployment continue to seem intractable with no real or immediate solutions being offered by those in public office. We continue to struggle to even articulate what “a non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous democracy” would be. Importantly the challenges from 20 years ago remain our problem today and must be on the national agenda except we are more divided, more polarised, more disconnected, more desperate for change, disillusioned and filled with despair. South Africans liberated themselves from a repressive and amoral regime in pursuit of a noble dream in the shape perhaps of a new form of patriotism, as articulated 20 years ago in our Parliament, but that dream as Langston Hughes alluded to as it has perhaps even been deferred. We continue to wrestle not only with a singular national question but also now with all that has happened in South Africa since the advent of our constitutional democracy. We have failed to entrench accountability in our public servants, we have failed to confront the scourge of corruption, we have failed to confront our economic challenges and we have failed to ensure that our social compact is united in a sense of common nationhood and a shared destiny”. The South African project has perhaps been deferred or even derailed especially in this last decade – that project has not just simply dried up, festered or sagged but instead that dream is perhaps on the verge of exploding as Langston Hughes wrote in his poem Harlem. DM

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