Innocent Nkata

JF Kennedy – the 35th US president – is credited with the phrase: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. This suggested that economic progress in a country benefited all citizens.

In the same year, 1961, that Kennedy uttered those famous words, Frantz Fanon – a leading thinker of the time – wrote The Wretched of the Earth in which he argued that because the coloniser’s power was based on military strength, any resistance to this strength needed to be violent, because this was the only language that the coloniser spoke.

So commonly shared was this thinking about 50 years ago that it is no wonder that Umkhonto weSizwe was founded on almost the same philosophy in the same year.

So, what indeed happens when “the wretched of the Earth” – men who spend much of their lives in precarious tunnels, deep in the belly of the Earth, toiling for a wage barely enough to put bread on their families’ tables – feel that people in power, the likes of the Victorian era Scrooge, will not listen to any language they speak?

I firmly believe the tragic events at Marikana demonstrate rising tides do not necessarily lift all boats. They also further demonstrate that hungry men are angry men and violence begets violence.

Despite the tide of economic progress in post-apartheid SA, and the euphoria of civic freedoms and the advancement of socio-economic rights that we have enjoyed, poverty and inequality remain.

Marikana is thus a clear warning sign that for the majority the struggle for social justice is still firmly on. The only issue up for discussion is whether this struggle has to be violent – and whether something could be done to avert similar tragedies in future.

There is no doubt in my view that the tragedy at Marikana, and a series of similar upheavals before that, are testimony of a serious breakdown in the social compact between citizens, the state, the private sector and civil society. Our social compact is the vision that was co-created when the democratic transition in 1994 ushered in a new constitutional dispensation espousing the values of human dignity, freedom and equality which led to everyone being optimistic that the rising tide of the rainbow nation would lift all boats.

While all but the most ardent pessimists would agree that much progress has been achieved post- 1994, there can be no debate about whether the tide has lifted all boats – it simply has not and the evidence is in the stubbornly high unemployment rate, the highest population of people living with HIV in the world, poor health and education outcomes, endemic levels of crime, particularly violent crime… What happened to the social compact? Why is it under such strain?

In addressing these and other questions, I would also like to argue that it is not too late to restore the social compact and that state and non-state actors like Soul City Institute have a critical role to play.

The conflict at Marikana mine, our perennial wage disputes often accompanied by violence, the permanent service delivery protests – all are clear signs the social compact is not holding together. The constitutional project, as the umbrella framework for the social compact, promised much in terms of respect for civic freedoms and achievement of socio-economic rights.

However, one cannot help but have a sense that somewhere along the way, the baton was dropped and the relay of the constitutional vision is now in intensive care. The use of brute force to suppress people who are merely asking to be rewarded fairly for their labour – enough to put food on their families’ tables – indeed, asking for their human dignity, freedom and equality rights to be respected and protected, can hardly be seen as reflecting a commitment to uphold the ideals of the social compact.

In addition to this, Marikana is an example of how all the social compact partners have dropped the baton. The state has dropped the baton of respect and protection of constitutional rights and picked up the baton protecting market interests. The corporate sector has dropped the baton of respect for workers’ dignity and fair remuneration for their hard labour and picked up the baton of profit at any cost. The labour movement has dropped the baton of advancing workers’ freedoms and picked up the baton of self-enrichment and political posturing. And all this does not exonerate civil society either, whose work risks perpetuating the status quo rather than pursue a transformative agenda.

Despite our deepening crisis, I still believe it is possible to save and nourish the social compact with good leadership. Since time immemorial, great leaders of nations from Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela have stood up to lead their people at the darkest hour, when all seemed bleak and lost.

Now is the time when we need to see the leadership of the country standing up and lighting the way. Unfortunately, the farce that we have witnessed in the aftermath of the Marikana tragedy – for example, political leaders tripping over each other to score cheap political points and company spokespersons insulting the bereaved families with tokenistic financial pledges – does not bode well for the leadership gap. Indeed, it is disconcerting that the heavily contested political terrain is likely to merely turn the poor communities into power battlegrounds rather than the focal point for reforging the bonds required to keep the social compact together.

It is here civil society organisations such as Soul City Institute have a lot to contribute. Soul City Institute has built relationships of trust with SA communities which are a solid foundation to facilitate dialogue within communities.

A serious way forward will not only require national dialogue, but will also require all players to look at themselves and shoulder part of the blame for what has happened. A key part of this will require going beyond the commission of inquiry into dialogue with communities to understand their frustrations.

This will also require a process of reaffirming a positive vision of social justice for the nation, a far-reaching process inspiring positive energy for a whole nation to work towards the realisation of the ideals of the constitutional project. Progressive realisation may be a sound constitutional principle, but it may not stem the tide of frustrations of a nation which has not only increasingly seen its hopes of social justice fade, but its rights being brutally thwarted, as happened at Marikana.

By way of example, Soul City Institute’s Kwanda initiative is one way of harnessing the positive energy of the nation together. TV reality show Kwanda, which literally means “to grow”, was flighted on SABC1 in 2009. Over 13 weeks, It profiled five communities across SA working to make their communities work better, look better and feel better, in the process inspiring a whole nation to organise themselves and hold state and non-state institutions accountable for social transformation. Kwanda can certainly help SA find a way out of the current despondency over the strained social compact.

Over the years, many nations have been energised to reaffirm their nationhood through either facing or dealing squarely with the aftermath of a human tragedy. To that extent, Marikana is an opportunity for SA to pick up the pieces of a broken social compact, and to pick up the baton in the constitutional relay for human dignity, freedom and equality. It is a moment to pick up the baton in the social justice journey and reaffirm the shared ideals of the social compact.

The people who lost their lives, or were injured, were merely doing their bit to achieve a just SA. Their lives and their pain will be in vain if the social compact is left to totally break down. Communities, the government, political partners, trade unions, civil society and corporate partners must now, more than ever, work together, to keep the social justice vision alive.

Nkata is an executive for social mobilisation at Soul City