It is during the toughest of times that the real character of a person is revealed. In downturns, as we are currently experiencing, the rapacious political elite’s naturalised corruption and their mob-rule capitalism activities are the enemy to South Africa’s democracy.
This ugly phenomenon has revealed the kind of leaders we have: those concerned with amassing wealth by any means necessary, including resorting to using political rhetoric that divides more than it unites – apportioning blame to white minority capital, the private sector or phantom counter-revolutionary forces that want to see this government fail, instead of being accountable for their actions.
If democracy is to serve the citizens, build bridges over the aspects that still divide us, create economic opportunities for all and result in a thriving society, realising this goal cannot be left to day-to-day politics – let alone the current ruling elite who are minority; a faction of leaders claiming to be carrying out the will of the people.
For these reasons and those I outlined in Part 1 (see link below), South Africans must refuse to accept that these leaders represent the best of us or that corruption, stealing and tender fraud is the norm.
Furthermore, we must reject a declining ruling party that seeks to become irrelevant through ideology and has no interest in taking the country forward.
Beyond strengthening the few institutions that can limit the abuse of power and executive overreach by political leaders, the social role of citizens to critique and be a voice of resistance against a greedy ruling elite is essential.
The solution to the limitless corruption, divisive politics and the waning economic and social wellbeing of society requires a shift in how South Africans think about their role as citizens and how we challenge leaders whose abuse of power persistently chips away at our democracy.
Most of you will no doubt ask: ‘How can I contribute towards changing the status quo, besides by voting?’
Here’s how …
Julian Brown’s book, South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics (Zed Books, 2015), an extremely useful compendium of protests in post-apartheid South Africa, provides some insights.
It discusses how people in communities that are often sidelined from the economy and excluded from basic service delivery use an insurgent form of expression to challenge the norms and practices that have become established and tolerable. Through protests, they confront authorities and ‘force the state to account for its actions on the community’s own terms’.
You might wonder why I am making this suggestion. The lesson here is that insurgent actions of ordinary citizens can unsettle authorities, defy how power operates and prompt leaders to address the social struggles they face.
Furthermore, the disruptions caused by these insurgent actions offer a glimmer of hope and the possibility of power, responsibility and roles being distributed in such a way that a more equitable society is built.
Upending the top-down approach
Let me explain. Communities otherwise seen as powerless use their agency as individuals and as a collective to march or protest against authorities to make their demands known, including identifying for themselves what their struggles are (such as a lack of water, infrastructure or health facilities). This in turn informs authorities of the kind of demands/solutions they seek. In this way, solutions are not top-down but emerge from the ground up.
The protests we often look down on or deem a nuisance cannot be ignored, and in fact offer insights into how to make the authorities pay attention.
The ‘Zuma must fall’ march of 2017 demonstrated this. If a society is to mobilise regularly – as we have seen in France, Spain and now Mali – politicians may eventually have to give in to the people’s will.
How does this help?
It challenges us to open ourselves to see the ways in which we are all in some sense insurgent citizens, or at least ought to be, in fighting and uprooting the culture of political capitalism, rapacious corruption and a political elite who undermine and threaten our democracy.
Notably, to open oneself need not mean abandoning one’s identity and beliefs.
You may still be male/female, young/old, straight/LGBTQ, black/white/Indian/mixed race and so on – but it is when we come together that we recognise our collective sense of responsibility to each other and the country around us.
By becoming South Africa’s insurgent citizens we can protest against the deluded, self-interested politicians who have no desire to make democracy work and instead use it to make themselves, their friends and their families obscenely rich from state resources meant for the public.
We have no choice against this kind of political leadership.
We cannot be apathetic or indifferent, nor can we wish this ruling elite away.
We have to take a stand and attend to this threat to our democracy.
If you occupy a privileged position, it might be tempting to think that becoming a citizen who participates in protests against corruption and the abuse of state resources is quaint and of no concern.
You would do well to remember that inaction and silence means approval, and that cynicism eventually becomes acceptance.
The pandemic has changed the world and emigrating to another country as a way of dealing with the uncertainties wrought by the current reality may no longer be a viable option. Most countries are now facing the challenge of rebuilding their economies and creating jobs, and while some will recover more quickly than others, most are going to be looking inward and prioritising their domestic needs and people.
The task before us, I believe, is to build a society that is founded on social justice with strong institutions and democracy. After all, we share a common humanity and we all have doubts, fears, and uncertainty about the future of South Africa.
We also have the same dreams, needs, desires and wishes for a stable and thriving economy that serves the majority and not a few.
If we are to make the country work for all, we must begin to learn ways of using insurgent forms of expression to challenge a political leadership that is reckless and is failing to secure South Africa’s future.