April was “Freedom Month”, a month during which we were supposed to reflect on the transition from apartheid to democracy and more especially, to commemorate our Struggle stalwarts who sacrificed so much in pursuit of political freedom.
Instead, our media was dominated by the Thabo Bester and Dr Nandipha Magudumana criminal shenanigans, the devastating impact of load shedding and the sabotage of water and electricity infrastructure by criminals.
From the euphoria of political freedom in April 1994 to the current rampant and destructive criminality around the country, it appears we’ve descended into becoming a nation at war with ourselves and that our hard-won “freedom” has now become a nightmare! One has to question the value of our hard-won “freedom” when millions of South Africans are not free but barricaded behind walls, when millions are now free to vote, only to realise that votes don’t feed, don’t employ and don’t protect life and limb. So how free are we really?
The last 29 years of political freedom and democratic rule under the ANC haven’t been kind to us. We’ve experienced 29 years of wasted opportunities. The “democracy dividend” when South Africa was lauded the world over for its peaceful political transition to democracy has been squandered. Poverty, unemployment, inequality and corruption have reached critical levels.
Today, South Africa hogs the headlines for all the wrong reasons: failing state-owned enterprises, collapsing infrastructure, pervasive corruption, state capture, high murder rates and a moribund government that seems unwilling and unable to generate solutions for the enduring socio-economic problems.
And, where apartheid largely drew distinction along racial lines, now the nation has fragmented along racial, class, ethnic, linguistic and ideological lines. To many doomsayers therefore, the slippery slide towards becoming a failed state is gaining momentum.
How did South Africa, a once continental industrial powerhouse, with world-class banking infrastructure, the only nuclear power on the African continent, and with internationally rated universities undergo such a rapid decline? The answer is simple. As a nation, we allowed it.
After April 1994 we were mesmerised by our newfound democratic political order, the progressive Constitution and the “Madiba Magic”. But, unfortunately, we also assumed that the ANC, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, could make a successful transition to a capable political party and government that could govern a modern industrial state.
This project failed and continues to fail with significant and disastrous impact for current and future generations.
To be candid, national and local government mismanagement has ushered in unprecedented turmoil. The struggling state institutions due to unskilled cadre deployment has resulted in catastrophic consequences.
These include the greylisting of our financial institutions, a failing economy and an increasing number of criminal syndicates which brazenly and with impunity undermine development and commercial projects.
When we view South Africa’s decline from the vantage point of the ordinary citizens who experience the devastating impacts daily, there are increasing feelings of disillusionment, unease and uncertainty.
Apart from the increased levels of anxiety, what is sad is the large numbers of South Africans of all races who have given up hope and are leaving in numbers, seeking greener pastures elsewhere, taking with them their much-needed skills and tax monies.
So where do we begin to build capability, ensure sustainability and protect the future of generations of South Africans to come? Firstly, no amount of disillusionment will solve our problems. Our solutions will come from neither optimism, nor pessimism, but a healthy dose of pragmatism and honest intention.
Let’s start with how we define “freedom” in “Freedom Month”. This has to mean more than just political freedom. “Freedom” should as a matter of urgency be reframed. From an individual perspective, “freedom” should also mean freedom from ignorance, freedom from apathy, freedom from narrow, egotistic, self-interests, and freedom to be critical of the current status.
At the government level, “freedom” should mean a break from party political interests towards what is best for the country. At a societal level, “freedom” should be the realisation that our collective salvation will only be possible when there’s a shared commitment to act jointly for the benefit of all.
If we are candid with ourselves, South Africa’s socio-economic decline shouldn’t come as a surprise. We can apportion part of the blame to the historical legacy of colonisation and apartheid, but this will only be a partial truth. The late auditor-general, Kimi Makwetu, in his municipal audit report 2018–2019, “Not much to go around, yet not the right hands at the till”, released in 2020, stressed the incompetence, cronyism and political malfeasance that has been eroding governance over many post-apartheid years.
The examples of economic and political decline we witnessed in Zimbabwe and now recently in Sudan show what can happen if we do not urgently respond to social, economic and political malfunction. Therefore, we need to put our egos and self-interests aside and in the words of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “put first things first” and take collective responsibility for our challenges.
Building a capable state requires thinking and actions that are unconstrained by political ideology, but that is underpinned by ethics, decisiveness and sustainability. Pursuing progress should not be about scoring political points. It should be about what is best for all South Africans.
We have everything we need for our salvation: a progressive Constitution to guide us, many bright and experienced minds, a deep societal resilience, but what we lack is collective agency. South Africa’s favourite Arch once remarked: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness” (Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu).
For a nation that is reeling under the effects of continuous power failures, a moribund economy and an unacceptable crime rate, hope might apply some light salve to our wounds, but to find a more reliable cure, we as a collective must act boldly, decisively and urgently!
Rudi Kimmie (PhD) is a human and organisational development consultant. He’s an alumnus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.