Nelson Mandela Foundation

The deaths of Zindziswa Mandela — a diplomat, activist and daughter of Nelson and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — and that of John Lewis, a United States Congressman and a civil rights leader for over six decades, have felt like the end of an era in the long struggle for Black liberation.

Although these leaders were born on different sides of the Atlantic and come from different generations, both were compelled to a life of activism and service from a young age and later took up positions within state structures. Their sacrifices and contributions towards justice exemplify what it means to serve society. And as we bid them farewell, we must ask, how can we accelerate the change needed to complete their work?

In the US, nearly 60 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are still witnessing mass protests and action for racial equity and justice. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless other Black people at the hands of law enforcement in recent months have forced millions of people into the streets to demand that Black lives be valued and protected. Their voices on the street speak to a voicelessness in the halls of political power.

In South Africa, the majority of people are living in abject poverty without adequate access to land and basic services. Arguably, this is due to the government’s failure to uphold the right to dignity for Black people who face violence, starvation and continued social and economic immobility. Public sector corruption and collusion with private interests are rampant, as elites extract public goods without fear of prosecution. Procurement scandals have dominated the news cycle, implicating companies that are politically connected at various levels of government and resulting in the most vulnerable communities being left without much needed provisions for their survival.

In part, this failure lies with the model of liberal democracy, as practiced in the two countries, that has been unable to deliver on its promise of equality. Instead, we have seen a rise of ethno-nationalist populism in both South Africa and the US as part of a global resurgence of white supremacy and the consolidation of capital. As a political model, liberal democracy is both undermined by direct attacks from the right-wing elite and it is simply inadequate for societies burdened by deep historic injustices that shape the very institutions through which democracy is exercised. These institutions and the praxis of liberal democracy have therefore been questioned by millions of people demanding a new world order based on a truly liberatory democratic practice.

The democracy-building of movements such as Black Lives Matter, which is recorded as being the largest movement in US history, consists of a broad coalition that cuts across the boundaries of race, gender, ethnicity and generation, and builds on the legacies of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Within these movements, activists engage in a daily practice of democracy rooted in centring the dignity of all and promoting a society whereby people can do more than survive — they live to realize their fullest potential collectively. As John Lewis noted in his final essay for The New York Times: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself”.

Similarly, South Africa’s C19 People’s Coalition was formed to increase government accountability during the four-month lockdown and has been driven by grassroots organizers. Their calls for greater transparency and monitoring by civil society have grown into calls for policies (such as basic income grants) that radically alter the inequalities of the South African political system. Furthermore, the calls for mass demonstrations on Working Class Day of Action echo the spirit of South Africa’s liberation struggle. The coalition is arguably building democratic processes outside of a state machinery.  

These bold efforts bring nuanced and intersectional approaches to reinventing the practice of democracy. They must be advanced to win the struggle for Black liberation and to achieve a more fully realised promise of democracy. And it is through such strategies, tactics and coalition-building that social-democratic principles can be realised in our lifetime.

The civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid struggles served as critical conduits of democracy, and both Lewis and Mandela leave us with powerful provocations. They signal an approach that goes beyond the politicking for narrow constituencies that our national democratic politics have become, to one that understands the interconnectedness of all our collective interests.

New movements must build a new kind of politics; one that holds true to the values of a shared humanity by recognising that freedom is not freedom if obtained through the oppression of others. This new practice of democracy itself should also not be reduced to seeing the state as the only legitimate apparatus of obtaining power. The limitation of state-centred strategies is the state machinery’s ability to consume struggles. What is needed are multiple strategies that change our societies at different levels with consolidated actions towards sustainable change.

A truly liberatory democracy, one that movements in South Africa and the United States are fighting for, is one that seeks to offer more radical solutions by pushing boundaries and trying things we’ve never done before. It is one that engages the state and society, activists and politicians, and those with power and the powerless. It is one in which all of us, as individuals and as members of communities, are at the centre of the decisions that govern our lives. 

Originally published here.