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The lesson from the last three decades of democracy we must internalise is that when most people become mere spectators, the country gets destroyed, writes Songezo Zibi

Since the beginning of our democratic dispensation, South African politics has been defined by the divide between the ANC as a governing party and the rest of the opposition parties. In other words, everything has been defined in terms of whether one is for or against the ANC and what it stands for.

In recent times, DA leader John Steenhuisen has attempted to redefine this terrain by saying that the EFF is “public enemy number one”, and that opposition parties needed to band together (under the DA’s leadership) to build a stronger opposition to a potential coalition between the EFF and the ANC. Of course he did not put it exactly in this way but that has been the clear implication, and a constant worry of many people that I have also come across.

I have on more than one occasion been asked by some people “which side is RISE Mzansi on? Are you on the side of the ANC/EFF or the Multiparty Charter?” In response, I have insisted that we are on our own path even as we know and believe that there will most likely be a coalition government next year.

This is not to say we will not participate in a future coalition, because we will. But this moment demands a clear-eyed political-intellectual project to take out country forward over the next two to three decades. This means a vision of a future South African society that, while significantly driven by politics, is an otherwise all-of-society mission that arrests our general decline as a country.

As a result, from the onset we set out a vision of a “safe, equal, prosperous, and united South Africa within one generation”. We also set out what we believe should be values around which we build a national ethos, character, and identity. These values are Freedom, Equality, Justice, Solidarity, and Integrity. All but Integrity are social democratic values, but we believe these resonate with the general South African spirit.

For more detail on our interpretation of these values, please read the document called, ‘Our Politics’, that we published in April this year when we introduced RISE Mzansi to the public.

I spoke about the need for South Africa to “move on” from the old and build anew. This task cannot be carried out by either old people who continue to dominate our public discourse and political space, or those “younger” people whose frame of thinking is the same old fare that has delivered the crisis we find ourselves in.

The traditional divide between “the ANC and the rest” or lately, “EFF/ANC and the rest” is not a vision and does not amount to a fundamental reset of a country that desperately needs one.

What are the tangible and intangible points of reset, the Third Way?

Let me set out just five.

The first is that South Africa needs new thinking and new leadership. Our public stage is dominated by old men and women who insist on shaping the future in terms of a worldview that has lost relevance. I argued that South Africans themselves need to cure themselves of the habit to look up to the generation of people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s for insight and direction on how to construct our future. This does not mean alienating them, but doing exactly what they did when they occupied the national stage when they were in their 30s and 40s.

Second, our democracy needs a reset. Our problems with unaccountable political parties, politicians, and government are also systemic, rather than individual behaviours. The belief that to get things back on track we simply need new people but no change in our governance system is misguided. Broadly speaking, we need an updated statutory framework that delivers a better electoral system, more citizen participation, and rules of government that make public accountability compulsory.

Third, we must change the way we understand and solve problems. We now need to start targeting problems with a comprehensive approach rather than the usual policy frames that do not change the day to day experiences of people. For example, millions of South Africans do not have enough food to eat, and suffer further income erosion from historical and current spatial injustices.

Yet, we insist on seeing all of this as a mere factor of unemployment. The reality is that a person cannot look for a job on an empty stomach, and their income gets eroded when they spend most of it on expensive, dangerous transport (taxis) instead of safe and efficient public transport. Even a Basic Income Grant does not make a meaningful dent on quality of life if conceived as a blunt instrument to cover up structural injustices that keep people poor.

This is just one example. There are many. We cannot seriously expect new thinking from the same people that have delivered and insist on the current, ineffectual thinking.

Fourth, we need to free ourselves of ideological dogmas that keep people poor and hold our country back. We need pragmatic approaches to some of our most serious problems. For example, the South African government is in serious debt and now spends more servicing this debt than keeping people alive, educating or treating their illnesses.

Yet, South Africa has trillions of rands in capital that belongs mostly to pension funds but is not being invested because of political chaos, sub-optimal policymaking, and crime. We need to build electrical, rail, road, and water infrastructure urgently without increasing our debt burden. We should be discussing the best ways of accessing private capital for national good instead of pressuring the finance minister to borrow much more than we can afford, and burdening future generations with paying for debt that results from poor political choices.

Finally, South Africa’s rot is not just political but society-wide. Our country is lawless in so many ways, with corruption making it possible for those with money to get away with just about anything. So it is not just the politicians that are unaccountable, but many people who are not politicians.

We do not have a clear national purpose, nor do we feel that democracy belongs to all of us. We treat civic duty and democratic participation as specialised jobs to be done by “other people” on our behalf. We do not have a sense of ownership and responsibility for the entire society, choosing to be passive observers who merely comment on the actions of others hoping that they care when they don’t.

What is to be done?

At RISE Mzansi we believe that the most important first step is to decide whether we are merely going to respond to existing, old political currents or chart a new path for a better future.

It is a mission that is self-propelling, and gives us an opportunity to redefine national unity, national purpose, non-racialism, social and economic justice, among others. It is a mission that is not based on fear, but hope and optimism. It is founded on the belief that the future is ours to determine if we are brave enough to do so.

No, this is not arrogance or not wanting to work together with others. In fact, there are many civic and political organisations in the RISE Mzansi network who organise with us, and we regard them as absolutely critical to this mission. What we do not subscribe to is the idea that the future is for political parties alone to determine.

The most important first step anyone can take is to get involved in some form of politics, especially civic politics. The lesson from the last three decades of democracy we must internalise is that when most people become mere spectators, the country gets destroyed.

Songezo Zibi is the leader of RISE Mzansi.

By Editor