Jay Naidoo: We must defend our priceless democracy
The disruptions at the National Education Crisis Convention, convened by a group of civil society leaders led by Justice Dikgang Moseneke, show just how close to a social explosion we are in our country. Along with millions of South Africans, I harbour a horrible sense of déjà vu. I feel we’re slipping back to the trenches of our past, standing at the edge of the precipice once again.
I see us living under siege, working in a volatile, fractured society. Because we are not listening. Because it is politically convenient. We stopped listening a long time ago. We cannot co-create success by hurling chairs and water bottles at each other. We all know that when we don’t listen to each other, our universities will burn. Our country will burn. And we will again be guilty of betraying the many generations who follow us.
We talk past each other, instead of focusing on the real issues that face our people. Our education crisis robs millions of young people of hope and opportunity; its catastrophic consequences are such that one in three of our people will go to bed hungry tonight, unemployed.
It’s time the political leaders of all parties take responsibility for this state of affairs. They cannot wash their hands of South Africa’s political crisis. And they cannot conveniently distance themselves from the actions of their own party members and supporters. Parliamentary contestation should not be so brutal that shared commitment to a common good withers.
The wilful neglect of the plight of ordinary black South Africans living under grinding poverty cannot be swept under the carpet any longer. And neither are our people pawns to be used and abused in the horse-trading over who wins political power in 2019.
It’s not where the majority of our people want to go. If we want to save our country, don’t destroy it and then leave the rubble for the next generation to rebuild, because it might never happen.
Education and training is both a terrain of struggle and co-operation. I truly believe that over the past years there is already a lot of consensus built on the way forward out of this education crisis.
The National Education Crisis Convention, after several months of detailed consultations with all sectors at a university, sectoral and provincial level was poised to deal with concrete proposals relating to short, medium and long-term challenges of fixing up our education system. There was full consensus as we had co-created the agenda, speakers, process and content. The great majority of students present were deeply disappointed at the loss of the convention in which they had invested so much preparation.
As Justice Moseneke said when announcing the postponement, “We have a long, difficult struggle ahead of us. It is not yet uhuru, and we cannot do it in a disorganised fashion. It must be within the parameters of discipline, of vision, and of a desire to change without shutting down,” he said, repeating the refrain that dialogue remains a solution and tool that as conveners we will continue to use to search for lasting solutions to the current impasse. He urged all stakeholders to be patient and tolerant, and warned that no meaningful engagement on education can take place without all stakeholders, including government, vice-chancellors, staff, parents and students, fully participating.
And herein lies one of the kernels of our dilemma. Violence cannot ever be the solution to our challenges in a constitutional democracy that gives the right to organise, to protest and the freedom of speech.
I recognise the deep-seated anger in the growing awareness that we live in a state that is increasingly dominated by a corrupt elite that masquerades as leaders, while creating patronage systems and chaos that undermine our public institutions. They seek to control the allocation of public resources and opportunities at local, provincial and national level, distributing them to individuals for their narrow political and material gain. The result is a malignant tumor of crony capitalism that gnaws away at the heart of the nation, sabotaging any government’s attempt to fulfil its obligations or uphold the tremendous victories of our freedom struggle.
Every contestation at a political level seems to be about whose turn it is to control the nation’s coffers and who must eat next. Small wonder our political parties across the board and the elites that preside over them have become so divisive. Our Parliament must be restored to its sovereign role of educating, inspiring and mobilising the nation by doing greater good for the greatest numbers of people in our country. It fails on these accounts daily given the headline scandals of Sassa and social grants, the appointment of key officials and boards and in its proposed nuclear deal.
Twenty-three years later we have to tackle privilege and the rise of inequality. We have to fix a broken system of governance and challenge the citadels of economic power that continue to exclude the overwhelming majority of black people. We have to deal with the need to ensure radical transformation of the economy, and the need for land and asset redistribution.
The guiding principle of South Africa’s Constitution requires the democratic state to use public resources and the annual budget process as a redistributive mechanism to truly transform our highly unequal society. To do this is to bring the bottom up, not take the top higher. And that bottom, the underclass, is getting bigger, angrier and restless today, not only in SA but across the globe.
But how should we tackle this political agenda in a way that builds peace and embraces non-violence?
Our universities, like every institution, factory floor or organisation, are a continuous struggle site. It’s where we build unity and power. We realised in the past, as trade union organisers, that burning the factory down meant workers were burning their jobs, they then were dispersed, were blacklisted. We lost power on the shop floor and it took many years to rebuild.
We inflict injury on ourselves. Violence becomes the language of engagement. I have worked in failed states across the world. I have a thousand horror stories we never want to talk about in our beautiful country.
We have outsourced our engagement as citizens in our democracy. We became bystanders. We gave up our power that freed our country to the political leaders and political parties that exist solely to contest elections and go into government. The time has now come to say to our leaders in government, business, and even in our unions, that we do not elect leaders so they become drunk on power and money. We elect leaders to serve the citizens of South Africa.
The time has now come for us to reclaim that power. That power belongs to “we the people”. We have to stand up and be counted, each and every one of us. No individual, organisation or sector can do this on its own.
Let us all take stock of that consensus in education – and one very important building block of that consensus is Section 29 of our Constitution on the right to education and the obligations of the state. Let us use this consensus to build and win the struggle for maximum unity across the country and across sectors. Then let us use this to also identify those areas where further consensus is needed and develop a broad plan and popular campaign towards a peaceful, sustainable and permanent solution.
For the current leadership of students in our universities, let this will be your legacy for the next generation of students currently in primary and high schools.
If we do our work well, in the decades to come we will all look back with pride with what your generation has done.
Let us not waste this crisis. I believe we can and must resolve the current impasse so that we can then lay the foundation for a better, broader, participatory dialogue on the purpose and future role of higher education in building a fair, just, humane, peaceful and vibrant democratic society. Our institutions serve a common public good and must never be held to ransom by anyone with narrow vested personal, business, sectarian or political party interests. Meaningful mechanisms for ongoing community-student-academic engagement everywhere in our country are sorely needed right now to help us achieve our dreams of transformative change so that no one and no child is left behind.
For managements and councils of our universities let us understand that the temporary lull of turmoil in our universities is precisely that. Universities are not immune to the social and economic ills in our country. In dealing with the turmoil that has engulfed our universities for the past few years a law-and-order approach outside a restorative justice framework cannot work. Justice as we have all lived in this country has been based on a theory that relies on reconciliation rather than punishment. The theory relies on the idea that a well-functioning society operates with a balance of rights and responsibilities. When an incident occurs which upsets that balance, methods must be found to restore the balance, so that members of the community, the victim, and offender, can come to terms with the incident and carry on with their lives.
Let us imbibe that kernel of history. I have learnt that freedom, as it turns out, requires eternal vigilance, and the gift of freedom does not entail doing what we want whenever we want and trampling on others without consequences.
Forgetting this is a terrible mistake. Democracy is a priceless gift. It belongs to “we the people”.
As Madiba once said:
“It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.”
As 55-million South African citizens, we have a duty to fulfil that noble and historic duty. DM