South Africa’s sixth democratic general election and the subsequent appointment of a new state executive by President Cyril Ramaphosa dominated the South African landscape in the last month.
While the significance of these developments is not yet clear, it does bring to an end the Zuma administration and an era during which the highest office in the land was used as an instrument of state capture.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation has congratulated the president and wished him well in addressing the many challenges facing him as head of state. His task, we believe, is a singular one. Fixing the government institutions that have been recklessly broken, and in many cases looted, must remain a priority for the foreseeable future. As must the uprooting of the patronage and wealth-extraction systems that have corroded governance at all levels and corrupted the body politic across all sectors.
Huge as these challenges are, the president’s biggest mountain to climb in our view is to ensure that the energy required to fundamentally transform our society – a project initiated in the 1990s but neglected ever since – is harnessed. Transformation must be the watchword for our country. With levels of anger and despair so high, failure to progress quickly could be disastrous.
Congratulations are also due to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for administering the general election in difficult circumstances with dedication and for ultimately succeeding in ensuring the integrity of the process.
There were shortcomings and a number of problem areas, indicating a degree of vulnerability in the systems the IEC uses, which is cause for concern for future elections. We also worry about the relatively low levels of participation, particularly among young people. This indicates alienation from the political process, something that will undermine any attempt to deepen democracy if left unaddressed.
It was the first time the Foundation, together with other institutions of civil society, served in an election observation capacity. We found the experience inspiring and are looking to both develop our capacity in this area and to get involved in the kind of civic education processes that will encourage higher levels of participation in elections.
At month-end, we were delighted to hear of the public unveiling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Victims Database by the South African History Archive (SAHA). It has taken a decade of activism by SAHA and its allies to achieve this important breakthrough.
For us, it signals once again the importance of freedom of information, good record-keeping and effective public archive services to both democracy and good governance. That it has taken so long for the database to become a public resource says a lot about how far short we are falling in these areas.
The TRC report submitted to Madiba in 1998 included strong recommendations – President Ramaphosa and his new administration would do well to revisit these recommendations (indeed, all the TRC recommendations) in plotting a transformation agenda for the 2020s.
In recent weeks, two things have saddened me, in different ways. The passing of former state herald Fred Brownell brought back strong memories of the 1990s interventions that resulted in the adoption of new national symbols for a democratic South Africa.
As a former colleague of Fred’s in government service, I will miss him. His role in generating the design for the new national flag will not be forgotten. We trust that the Foundation’s continuing endeavour to have gratuitous displays of the apartheid national flag declared to be a form of hate speech honours his work. And that it will be successful!
Speech that is hurtful, if not hateful, is a growing scourge in public discourse, especially on social media platforms. Languages of prejudice, bullying and identity peddling (assuming race because of name) have become normalised. Use of so-called vernacular idioms excuses the demeaning of individuals.
People are labelled based on untested assumptions: a name can make a person “white”; “black privilege” can be sucked out of someone’s thumb; whiteness disqualifies someone from being a presidential adviser.
The right to self-identify is ignored, as is the right – the one so fundamental to any post-apartheid project – to dignity.
This can’t be right. Transformation agendas will have to reckon with these languages and find ways of holding people accountable, not only for the hurt they cause to individuals, but also for the harm they do to the social fabric.