On this, the 38th anniversary of the 16 June uprisings, I write this note as one schooled, groomed, and shaped by one of the most militant and still impoverished communities in South Africa. For some members of this community, life has virtually stood still over the last 20 years of democracy. The promise of a better life remains just that, a promise.
As a product of this community, I say: We know your patience is not endless. We appreciate that you voted for faster change and transformation. We cannot fail you, the marginalized, we cannot fail ourselves nor fail South Africa. We know that a society based on our level of inequality is not sustainable. We know that you yearn for a brighter future for yourselves and your children.
All of us, in our different spheres of influence, have to work harder to create jobs, to address our people’s health needs, to protect our people’s rights and to deliver the services our people have a right to expect to receive.
As we forge forward toward the next 20 years of democracy, we as South Africans need to answer many deep questions, for ourselves and for one another. Each one of us will have to open our minds to critical self-examination.
In reflecting on the past 20 years, we will have to question some of what we considered to be the truth, a given, and learn to live with a reality that demands that we change the assumptions that inform our actions and views.
An eventful time for South Africa
This has seemed obvious to me in reflecting on the past few months, which have been very eventful in the life of South Africa. In roughly six months, we have said a dignified farewell to our dear Madiba, celebrated our democracy’s 20th anniversary, conducted peaceful elections, observed a colourful presidential inauguration, and been introduced to our leaders at national and provincial level. We have also witnessed the start, but not the end, of our country’s longest strike to date. These events have filled us with a mixture of pride, joy, excitement, happiness and sadness, the proportions of each depending on the lens through which we view the events concerned and their immediate impact on our lives.
As a result, some South Africans are cautiously optimistic, some have heightened expectations of change and others are more despondent than before or have given up all hope for the future of this country. We are all experiencing real, sometimes raw, emotions. We all have hopes and fears. I have noted the following around me of late:
- Some of us have great hope that service delivery will improve our lives;
- Others hope government intervention will lift them from abject poverty;
- Many have great aspirations to move up the corporate ladder, given the opportunities before them;
- Some are hopeful that social delivery will be accelerated;
- There are also those who hope their dreams of owning their own businesses will be realised;
- Some hope for a new sense of inclusion and belonging in a country that is becoming increasingly foreign to them;
- Many hope that crime and corruption, which mar this great land, will be dealt with and ended;
- Several yearn for more policy certainty and good governance to enable them to invest more in this country;
- Most hope to see the realisation of the success that South Africa is capable of achieving.
The two broad themes that I can discern are:
- Great hopes about the future tinged with frustration about the pace of economic change, in particular; and
- Apprehension about the future, coloured by anxiety and fear at the direction of change.
I have spoken often about the tensions between deep levels of fear and high levels of expectations among and between different communities in South Africa.
The former urges us to slow down transformation, but the latter urges us to accelerate it. This tension is still with us, twenty years after the birth of our democracy and fourteen years after it was first articulated. However, considering the many changes that have taken place in the past 20 years, many South Africans would nuance their position on this tension differently, bringing other narratives to the fore. Here are a few of the ones I have noticed recently:
- Concern that a shrinking few are doing well and a growing many are barely making it;
- Feelings of empowerment and optimism in some sectors, but some South Africans feeling alienated and marginalised in their own country;
- An increasing number of South Africans experiencing a change towards a better life, but some who have seen no change or even a deterioration in their living conditions;
- Some South Africans carrying the torch for non-racialism and a sense of national identity, but others fast retreating into linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious enclaves.
Negativity is taking hold
As we face economic difficulties, as we confront the harsh realities of change and as we grapple to balance competing needs and interests, our national unity is starting to fracture, our identity is starting to fade and our society is starting to polarise. These fractures manifest themselves in different ways; sometimes black versus white, or local versus foreign; rich versus poor or rural versus urban; ruling party versus the opposition or Christian versus Muslim. As we shout at one another, as we hurl insults, denigrate, humiliate and inflict maximum pain, the cracks grow wider, the differences become more glaring and the bonds that have held us together weaken.
This climate means that those with hopes and aspirations are being drowned out by those feeling anger, fear, despondency and frustration. The voices of doom and gloom are starting to take centre stage and the dream of a successful rainbow nation looks more like a mirage every day. Old and new commentators, critics and sceptics alike are starting to fall over themselves to pronounce our beautiful country a “failed state” or a “banana republic” or to apply some other derogatory label.
In such an environment, it may seem safer to remain quiet; it may seem prudent to stay below the proverbial parapet. But this is not the right thing to do.
It’s our responsibility
The harsh reality is that these are our challenges, our common problems. This is our country, and each of us has to play a role in building this society. I have a role to play, as a citizen, as a father, as a leader, and as a member of my community. Silence, indifference or lack of interest would be a betrayal of my upbringing, my beliefs and my aspirations for this great land.
Part of our responsibilities is to do very basic yet fundamental things out of our common humanity:
- Firstly we need to understand each other’s aspirations, fears, anxieties and hopes. It is not enough to merely understand and appreciate your own, denying others theirs. This understanding would create a better and firmer platform for dialogue.
- Secondly, it is important for us to listen closely to one another, without prejudice, malice or judgment.
- Thirdly, we have to be more careful and sensitive with words, symbols, acts, cartoons, tweets, posts and comments that could humiliate, denigrate or belittle people, groups, or cultures.
- Fourthly, we need to educate our children about the richness of our diversity, the potential of our society and the responsibility we have to our country, our environment and our community. This does not mean that we do not share with them our challenges and problems. However, we should at least give them an opportunity to develop and understand their fellow men and women, the society they will inherit, with as few as possible of our own past prejudices.
- Lastly, we must find ways of expressing our anger and frustrations that are consistent with our constitution, are respectful of the law and are exemplary to young people. Too many South Africans resort to the torching public buildings to express social delivery impatience; or too tweets and posts that seek to humiliate, denigrate and belittle other racial or ethnic groups as a means of expression; or to racist road rage in protest of a sense of exclusion; or to destruction of private property as a means of registering political dissent; or to random attacks on foreign nationals and the confiscation of their goods; or to speeches that incite violence, polarisation and hatred of one group or the other; or to attacks on the independence and integrity of institutions tasked with the defence of democracy, put in place as a check on the abuse of power.
We can only do it together
The challenges we face are enormous; the path ahead is long and arduous, but as seductive as they may seem, shortcuts are not the answer. Violence and destruction will not yield the desired results; and as assuaging to anger or frustration as racist remarks, posts, tweets or cartoons may be, they will not wipe any race group from our land.
No South African, no matter how influential; no political party, no matter how powerful; no group, no matter how strong; can build our society on its own. To build this society, we will have to draw on the energy, passion, commitment, capabilities and promise of all our people.
Our people may have vastly different experiences, interests, hopes, fears, aspirations and views. Our duty, as leaders, is to build on what they have in common: a deep desire for a better life, a powerful yearning to live in peace and harmony, a fervent hope for a brighter future for their children. Let this be our vision and our rallying cry: We hope for a common future in which more people prosper, rather than fewer.
Our responsibility as leaders is to create a bright future for all South Africans while driving the necessary change towards equity and transformation. Our ability to take all constituencies with us, our skill in building a guiding coalition of change, our capacity to create understanding and consensus among our people will be the true measure of our leadership ability.
Plainly speaking, we have to persuade those fortunate enough to have access to resources, skills, education, assets, wealth and positions of privilege that their future prosperity lies in a society that grows its economy and spreads its wealth. We have to demonstrate through word and deed that these fortunate few belong to this country, can contribute greatly to its success and deserve recognition for their efforts: past, present and into the future.
We must create an enabling environment for them to invest their excess savings, plough back their hard-earned skills, share their wealth of experience, use their ingenuity and give of their precious time towards the creation of a better society.
With all the persuasive skills at our disposal, with all the humility we can muster, we must make a cogent case for all who are part of this sector of our society, irrespective of their race, to promote genuine change and economic transformation. We must make the case, which I’m sure many will accept, that our common future lies in growing an economy that creates more jobs and increases the prosperity of those less fortunate. We must solicit their support for that journey and harness their human and other resources for the betterment of our society.
Many are willing
Although this may seem a hard sell, I have come across many men and women of goodwill in this sector of society, who are only too willing to contribute, in various ways, to the creation of a winning nation. I say this as one who has the privilege of belonging to this social group and who is not alone in seeing success as more than capital accumulation, conspicuous consumption and living a life of luxury without regard for our fellow South Africans.
I know that many of us are seeking even better ways to engage the government, civil society, and other role players, as individuals or as organised bodies, to join in building a better life for more people rather than for fewer. I hope and pray that these genuine gestures of outreach, these sincere attempts to close the gap, no matter how small they may appear, will be embraced and will help to build a solid foundation of shared prosperity. I firmly believe that any steps, however tentative, any acts, however few, can help to galvanise support from many of us who are blessed to have more than others to contribute.
In this, the 20th year of our freedom, may many more of my brothers and sisters hear the despairing voices of our brethren and find it in their hearts to give some of their time, skill, expertise, experience and finances to contribute towards the next 20 years of greater prosperity.
We must bring people with us
I also know some people have given up hope. Some feel alienated and discouraged; their children’s dreams have been deferred for too long, so I pray and plead for the despairing also to give this country a chance; to embrace those trying to lead change and to work united towards the hope of a better life, which will be realised together or not at all.
We must engage our fellow South Africans who are less fortunate. We must demonstrate, through words and even more so through concrete deeds, that we hear their desperate cry as they toil daily through a life of misery, poverty, and hardship 20 years into our democracy. We must, frankly and soberly admit that we have overpromised and under delivered in some instances. We must accept that their patience is wearing thin. We must articulate a clear path towards prosperity for them, with clear timeframes and milestones.
Our dialogue must be frank, yet tinged with sensitivity and empathy about the constraints we face, the role they have to play and how fast or slow the process of change may become. We must share with them the role expected of all spheres of government, civil society, business and other players in addressing their social services requirements in a way that enhances their faith in our society and that restores their dignity. They must be, and feel that they are, an integral part of our solutions. We must never see them as passive and docile recipients of hand-outs, grants or food parcels, although these are welcome and necessary to alleviate their plight. We must co-create a better future for them and their children with them; we must give them a sense of hope that tomorrow will be better than today.
We may have felt marginalised before; we may have been insulted before; we may have been rejected before. For the sake of our children and this beautiful land, we must put the past behind us and contribute towards the future we seek, no matter what our present position in society. Leaving the country may still be an option, withdrawing from society may still be an alternative, but contributing towards the future of our children is surely a more rewarding endeavour.
We dare not fail
This journey will be long and hard, it may proceed in fits and starts, it may surprise us with sharp bends, it may contain steep inclines and dangerous obstacles. Whatever we encounter along the way, we must stay the course, together, more united and more clear about the glorious future that beckons.
Bound together by a common destiny, glued to one another by a common history and marching in step towards the next 20 years, we must seek a shared prosperity.
As we face the next 20 years, let us regain the great promise we held for the world, let us reclaim the status we had among the nations of the world; let us create a nation that all of us can be proud of. May each one of us find their colour in our rainbow, may more of our people find a place at our prosperity table and may all our people see themselves in the picture of the future we are creating.
Our country’s beauty will be enhanced when we share it; its riches will be preserved if more benefit from them and our flag will fly higher when more pay allegiance to it.
South Africa belongs to all who live in it, let us not exclude anyone; let us not leave anyone behind; let us make everyone feel a sense of belonging, pride, love and loyalty.
Yes, we are heading into uncharted territory, confronting contending theories and attempting to reconcile competing needs. As we do so, we must challenge ourselves and each other to move away from narrow, sometimes selfish or sectoral, interests and agendas. We must hold one another accountable for moving out of our current paradigms and comfort zones to put the national interest at the top of the agenda.
But we have chosen the way less travelled before, so why should we shrink away from placing our country, our children’s future and our common destiny first?
We are proudly South African. We dare not fail!