No fewer than five protests are held each day as communities across the country are involved in increasingly violent, sporadic protests about poor living conditions, says the writer. File photo: Bhekikhaya Mabaso

Tonight President Jacob Zuma will speak to a country that in some areas is in no mood to listen, says Judith February.

Johannesburg - What is the state of our nation? Recently we have seen a dramatic rise in social protest as we stand on the cusp of elections.

No fewer than five protests are held each day as communities across the country are involved in increasingly violent, sporadic protests about poor living conditions. The country seems to be gripped in a cycle of anger. Our increasing levels of inequality, politicians’ arrogance in splurging on cars and other wasteful expenditure seem to be fomenting anger within our communities.

And this provides the rather difficult context for President Jacob Zuma as he comes to Parliament tonight to address the nation. South Africa also celebrates 20 years of democracy and while Zuma will no doubt emphasise the progress South Africa has made in transforming our society, it will also be a moment to reflect on what still needs to be done.

There will be a special poignancy to the proceedings. It will be the first opening of a democratic Parliament of the country without Madiba in it. Whether he was able to attend or not during the years of his retirement, his was a presence always acknowledged.

Our challenges remain stubborn. South African has about 4.5 million unemployed at a rate of 25.7 percent. It still really is all about the economy. Yet we have to accept that the job nut is a hard one to crack and that there can be no silver bullets when it comes to employment creation.

Now may well be a prudent moment to think about the way in which South Africans participate in their democracy. The constitution envisages far more than simply a pure representative democracy – casting one’s ballot every five years.

It seems, though, that our politicians have lost the art of staying connected to citizens. Every five years we have a glut of election posters, rallies, sweaters and dancing and then what seems like an aching silence during the years in between.

Citizens tired of the silence have simply been doing what South Africans have always done when attempting to have their voices heard – they have taken to the streets. As a country we have become almost inured to “service delivery protests”, which have become part of daily traffic reports across the country.

The poor and marginalised are at the heart of these protests, seemingly unheard and voiceless. Communities have learnt that the one way to get a politician out of his or her office is to stage a protest. But why should it be this way?

The disconnectedness between citizens and elected representatives is not what the constitution envisaged. Our democracy has at its heart participation and a continuous interaction between active citizens and those who elect them.

Our electoral system – for all its benefits – may be counter-productive in establishing those close links between citizens and their representatives. The Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform in 2003 made certain recommendations regarding some changes to our electoral system which would perhaps create greater accountability to citizens – for instance the creation of multi-member constituencies. These ideas and recommendations were never properly engaged with and came to naught.

Yet while one can tinker with the system, accountability to citizens requires a deepened commitment by those elected to entrench a culture of democracy across our society. And so as Zuma comes to Parliament, his speech will need to be about more than simply the numbers and pieces of legislation in the pipeline. His speech will need to strike an authentic chord with those out on the burning streets.

Our social compact so carefully constructed in the years following 1994 seems to be fraying at the edges. Zuma will speak to a country that in some areas is in no mood to listen, to citizens who are tired of waiting for “delivery”, who believe corruption and graft is on the increase and who believe we are losing our way.

How we “fix” things and find solutions is not the government’s task alone, and it will take far more than laws and policy to do so. It will require a mammoth effort from business, labour and civil society to create a more equal society and one in which citizens believe their concerns are being addressed. For this to happen, however, there needs to be a quotient of trust across all sectors of society. Zuma’s job is to lead by harnessing that trust for the good of our whole society.

* Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star