The violence erupting across many of the country’s poorest provinces and areas signals the damage that both apartheid and recent maladministration have caused. It is with great pain that we witness some of the deep schisms between communities and between people and the state.
In the Western Cape, disputes over land between communities in Mitchells Plain and the adjacent Siqalo informal settlement have led to dangerous racial antagonisms and confrontations that have resulted in a death.
In Protea Glen in Johannesburg, community reactions to land occupations have been heated, and in my home province, North West, we have witnessed almost incomprehensible actions by people protesting alleged corruption in the provincial health department, preventing the provision of healthcare services in the province due to their ongoing and valid complaints.
Also upsetting is that looting of predominantly small businesses based in townships is fast becoming the norm whenever communities are unhappy with the government. The looters overrun law enforcement agencies.
The turn to violence continues to be a default reaction for many in South Africa. In part, it can be explained in terms of resilient structural and institutional violence experienced by South Africans on a daily basis.
The brutality of poverty and inequality meted out to most South Africans continues to haunt us. This has worsened over the last few years as three million more South Africans fell below the poverty line.
Research by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation has also found that many people believe that the leading factor in the failure of real reconciliation is continued inequality.
We also have to reckon with profound alienation from the state in our communities, with the result that meaningful engagement between the authorities and society is all but impossible.
As I have argued before, democracy itself has been “captured”. Surveys have noted the decline in support for democracy. People have lost faith in it; they feel their protests through democratic channels have gone unheard.
It is important that we engage with the issues that our society is experiencing and don’t shy away from fulfilling our roles as active and reflective citizens, with the aim of achieving a better life for all.
It is in this vein that the Foundation is honoured to be hosting former US President Barack Obama as the speaker for this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, with the theme of “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World”.
The Foundation has been hard at work thinking about the role that we can play in supporting poor and vulnerable South Africans. Efforts have been directed towards advocacy and capacity building, with two workshops on the land question held in April.
The first workshop brought together more than 30 community-based organisations engaged in addressing questions of land in urban and rural environments. These organisations met to network, strategise and engage with the complexities of the “land question” in South Africa.
We also hosted a training workshop for journalists with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) to promote better-informed and more nuanced reporting on the land debate.
It is our belief that access to land underpins much of the structural inequality in South Africa and the failure to sufficiently engage with this issue is part of the unfinished business of Madiba’s legacy. In taking on this business, we have to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable and marginalised inform our work.
The Foundation’s focus on dialogue and engagement should not be read as an attempt to reduce activism and radical thought in our society to academic engagement only.
The Atlantic Fellowship for Racial Equity (AFRE) is one example of us supporting radical voices to help to accelerate change. The AFRE fellows from the United States and South Africa recently spent time in Johannesburg and parts of the North West to explore together how capital, and capitalism, have affected people and the environment in Southern Africa. Trips to Marikana and across Gauteng put into sharp relief the difficult path ahead and the need for multiple forms of justice.
During the centenary of Madiba’s birth we must focus our efforts on finding the kinds of justice that were perhaps impossible to implement during the transition years and on identifying ways to deliver economic and social equality at an accelerated pace.
To make the centenary year a success, we must question many of the fundamentals that our country was built on and work towards a future where people can realise their capabilities and achieve freedom.