Nelson Mandela Foundation

For some of us, recent weeks have been dominated by news of developments in the formation of a government of national unity and by talk of the need for a national dialogue or conversation or convention. Many voices, many analyses, many views. But what is it that our country needs most in this moment of transition?

Let me first name a few things that I believe we definitely don’t need. Alarmist talk of a crisis requiring dramatic intervention is neither accurate nor helpful. On the one hand, our politicians are trying to do in a few weeks what some countries take months to get right in negotiating coalitions of various forms. Calm heads and patience become important. On the other hand, South Africa’s democracy has been in trouble for more than two decades, so that deep, long-term, systemic change is needed rather than crisis intervention.

We also don’t need a politics of point-scoring, dominated by voices which are shrill or accusatory or self-important or condescending. Very often this is not about what is being said, but is rather a matter of voice tone, and pitch, and register. What we need instead is a politics of pragmatism voiced with a certain soberness, even humility. Listen to Madiba in 1994 calling for just such a politics as South Africa was about to see its first government of national unity: “During these elections I have warned both members of my own organisation as well as other political organisations – I’ve said you must remember that your opponents now are going to be your partners in the future; we are going to work together; let us not open now wounds which will be difficult to heal when we try to work together in as a government of national unity.”

Back in 1994, of course, we had Nelson Mandela as a great and inspiring symbol of unity and common purpose. Today, though, it would be a grave mistake to be looking for another saviour figure, whether in the form of an individual or a formation. Madiba didn’t work alone in the 1990s. At many levels, across sectors and political parties, we saw leadership being shown where it mattered. During that first democratic administration, for instance, I worked for a national department with an Inkatha Freedom Party minister, an ANC director-general (who, by the way, was only 29 years old), and an entrenched senior bureaucracy steeped in apartheid values, cultures and modes of operation. That department somehow found a way to work well. And it started with the task of transformation. In many ways, I would argue, it exemplified the model of leadership we need now. The saviour model is not helpful.

That first administration made many mistakes and got some fundamental things wrong. It’s critical that we learn from them now. And it’s important that all of us – individuals and organisations – who were part of that administration or partnering with it (as consultants and experts and advisers) find an appropriate humility in the debates of today.

South Africa needs many things in this moment of challenge and possibility. But what we need most is a determination to make things work, precisely in order to complete the task of transformation that was started in the 1990s but allowed to founder. (I left government in 2001, at a moment when it became clear to me that the fundamental transformation of our society was no longer on the agenda.) We must be clear now that the overriding objective has to be about turning the Constitution into a lived reality for the majority of our people. We don’t need talkshops to discuss this. If anything, we need workshops to develop the implementation plans. And we need the blood, sweat and tears that will accompany the difficult work that we know needs to be done. It’s time for work