South Africa’s democracy is 18 years old. Yet the nation united in diversity ushered in by President Nelson Mandela has reached maturity in a profoundly conflicted state.
On one hand, South Africa leads many of its peers on key indicators such as the strength of its democratic institutions, macro-economic stability, press freedom, and business sophistication – reflecting the fact that the country’s middle and professional classes have embraced their freedom with open arms.
On the other hand, a large proportion of South Africans remain impoverished, undereducated, underemployed, and beset by an array of social problems ranging from crime and violence to ill-health.
It is clear that democracy has failed to reverse the far-reaching personal disempowerment inflicted on many black South Africans by apartheid.
Unless this deep wound is healed, the country’s liberation will remain incomplete and at risk.
So why is the job of transition to democracy so far behind where we had dreamt we would be by now? What are the missing links in connecting reality and the dreams of so many? What role can citizens and the private sector play to turn our challenges into opportunities?
In our excitement about the transition to democracy we underestimated the challenge of mindset change that goes with any change to ensure its sustainability. This omission was a result of over-confidence in our ability to tackle any challenge having slain the dragon of apartheid.
It was also the result of fear that any admission of vulnerability would be playing into the hands of those resisting change and holding prejudicial views about black people’s competence to govern. But the reality is that neither black nor white people had had any experience of democracy on home soil.
I would like you to come with me into that space we are afraid to enter – the space of honest conversations with ourselves that allow us to move beyond denial towards acknowledgement of our own failures as individual citizens, communities, private sector actors and society to rise to the role of stewards of our constitutional democracy.
There is now overwhelming international evidence that points to the critical importance of acknowledging and dealing with social pain as an essential step in healing the wounds of past injustices.
We need to create the time to come to terms with the woundedness that we came into this democracy with, acknowledge that the attempts at transformation have not succeeded to the extent we had hoped thus far.
We need to draw on our strengths to tackle the wounds and scars that are undermining our performance as a nation destined for greatness.
This is the imperative that prompted the formation of the Citizen Movement for Social Change (CMfSC) in 2011, with the active involvement of a range of senior South African leaders spanning business, politics and civil society.
The CMfSC has initiated a multi-pronged programme aimed at deepening democracy and promoting active citizenship.
The point of departure is to create spaces for conversations about how we heal our wounds, to educate ourselves about what it means to be a citizen of a constitutional democracy; what rights and responsibilities we assume.
We regard the main thrust as enabling ourselves to undergo the journey from being “subjects” of an oppressive system to becoming citizens.
The vision is to build a powerful “change engine” for wide-scale citizen empowerment, called Subject to Citizen (S2C).
We first have to educate citizens about the rights they are entitled to under the constitution as well as the responsibilities they assume.
I am amazed by the number of young very educated South Africans who are unfamiliar with the basic provisions of the constitution.
This applies to both uneducated and professional young people – black and white.
We have failed to use the Independent Electoral Commission, an organ of state, to educate citizens about democracy and the particular provisions of a constitutional democracy with separation of powers between the executive, parliament and the judiciary.
There seems to be a major confusion between what pertains in a parliamentary democracy versus a constitutional democracy.
A parliamentary democracy is what pertained under apartheid.
The bitter experience of the courts and other organs of the state being hostage to an unaccountable executive prompted the choice by our leaders at the negotiation table led by the ANC to opt for a constitutional democracy. This ensures that you and I as citizens are empowered to hold the executive and the legislature accountable while the judiciary is compelled to operate under, and ensure that the other organs of state respect, the precepts of the constitution.
Our desire to be a society united in its diversity can only be enabled and supported by adherence to that which unites us – our common commitment to the founding values of our constitution.
Yet our everyday experiences remind us of the gap between commitment and daily practice.
Just think about your work places.
How respectful are they? How affirming are they of diversity in terms of race, class, age and gender? How are we modelling the values we signed up for in our social relationships?
South Africa entered its democratic phase with a huge advantage.
The World Economic Forum 2011 report rates us one or two on the real tough elements of success in the 21st century competitive global economy.
We excel in banking, audit and risk as well as financial management. We have managed to dig ourselves out of the hole of huge macro-economic imbalances inherited from apartheid to become one of the shining lights of fiscal rectitude.
Yet on the “soft issues” of human, intellectual and social capital we are at the bottom of the same rankings.
We are 131 out of 142 countries in the world in terms of our primary education and health system – in education terms we are behind poor African countries such as Malawi and even Swaziland.
So how can we explain this under-performance given that we are the highest spender in public education and health system budgets?
Something else is at work here. It is partly the woundedness I spoke of earlier. But then Swazis and Malawians are also wounded. Why us?
Part of the explanation is that other African countries did not have to deal with the dissonance of starving in the midst of plenty at such close quarters.
Our teachers are not comparing themselves with teachers in Malawi, but with other well paid public servants in our system. Status competition is what drives them rather than professional performance.
But what has this got to do with the private sector?
The private sector would be short-sighted not to be materially interested in the performance of the public sector.
You, as business people, have to ensure the sustainability of your businesses. That depends on human, intellectual and social capital as much as it depends on ecological and fiscal capital.
Any other view is misguided. You have a responsibility to ensure good governance in society.
This is good for business.
We have pretensions to be a global player. We have signed up as part of the Brics. We want to be a major player in African and global affairs. That requires a level of maturity we have yet to demonstrate.
We also have to ask about the extent to which the private sector that has such a strong muscle has exercised its corporate citizenship.
Take the extent to which we failed to leverage BBBEE to promote substantive broader economic participation.
Why did we focus on short-term relationships of convenience at the expense of medium and longer term engagements to transform the sectors we operated in?
Why has there been such little change in the institutional cultures of private sector companies operated by black people versus those run by traditional white male captains of industry?
We now have the opportunity to be part of the journey from “subject” to “citizen” and to free ourselves from the legacy of undermining our own success.
Greatness is for us to embrace, but we have to be willing to shed the façade of crass materialism and pursuit of status symbols.
We have the human, natural and mineral resources to make us a great country. But we have to assume our stewardship of these resources and not act like pirates on the high seas with no regard for the common good.
To the extent we act as extractors of value with little regard for investment in the sustainability of these resources, to that extent will our country be the poorer.
We have the opportunity to conclude the unfinished agenda of our transition to democracy.
The roadmap is clear in our constitutional framework.
What is missing is the practice to match our commitment to be a country united in its diversity and promoting equality and advancing human rights and freedoms.
Do not be tempted into the short-termism that has damaged so much of our continent.
The journey ahead of us is to move from being subjects (gullible and subservient) to become citizens (the sovereigns who hold their leaders accountable).
We owe it to our children. But we owe it much more to their children’s children.
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