The business community must not for one moment think that they or their enterprises are immune to the winds of radicalisation and polarisation blowing across South Africa right now.
The wave of resurging black resentment of the status quo is manifesting on two fronts: a middle class rage and the anger of the poor and unemployed.
Most white people have witnessed the uprising in the squatter camps via television news bulletins from the comfort of their middle class homes. As David Kramer wrote – and Roger Lucey sang – in 1978:
“But nothing disturbs the suburbs’ quiet
Not the sirens or the news of a township riot
Knowing it all from the distance of headlines
I express my opinion
With a mouthful of dry wine.”
The black discontent has now moved from the distance of headlines to all of our doorsteps. It’s unfolding and ramifications will most definitely have an impact on all our lives, our economy and how we do business. It is bound to influence the governing ANC’s decision-making, especially because it is rather nervous about next year’s local election and the general election of 2019.
I have made the argument many times that much of the anger should be aimed at the way the ANC had governed the country since 1994; that we would not have had this rise in political temperature if it had governed with vision, clarity and energy and without corruption, wasting of resources, empire building and nepotism.
Our universities, for example, would have been very different places if the education of the majority of the black youth had not been so criminally neglected.
But that obvious point is lost on many in the populist frenzy and feverous impatience of our new political environment. Besides, the constant reminders of white privilege and the growing inequality – and persistent white arrogance and racism – are just too provocative.
Robert Mugabe, who arrived in South Africa on Wednesday, is a case in point. He remains “the Great African Liberator” in the eyes of millions because he acted decisively against the white minority. The fact that he has destroyed his country’s economy, that he and his family became mega-rich, that he oppressed his opposition, stole an election and drove a quarter of his population out of his country does not weigh all that heavily with many angry black people.
The realisation that the quest to overcome the bitter legacy of apartheid history has failed, understandably makes people feel hopeless and powerless. White schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others) simply reinforces this. Militancy is the next step.
In our present political climate Julius Malema’s EFF cannot but thrive. Cheap populism is the currency of the day, and Malema and his cohorts are in their element. We can expect even more reckless opportunism from them in the months ahead.
When he urged his supporters to destroy monuments and statues to everything and anything from before 1994, Malema and his ilk must have known that he was pushing the buttons of the white right wing; that he was giving oxygen to a dormant group of racists and white nationalists.
But perhaps that was exactly what they wanted. They probably can’t wait for the first bloody racial clash. The EFF can only benefit from further polarisation. It will further drown out the voices of reason from all sides.
The present national restlessness is bound to be exacerbated by the fracturing of the trade union movement and the predictable militant demands that competition between warring unions will bring.
We need to urgently strengthen the middle ground. And we all know by now that we cannot expect strong leadership from President Jacob Zuma and his party hierarchy.
The best-developed and proven leadership in the country today is in the business community. I’m not only talking about the handful of senior captains of industry, but leadership throughout the whole private sector and throughout the whole country, black and white.
Hope is the commodity we need most now. Hope that we’re not descending into conflict and instability; hope that Project New South Africa is still on track; hope that the future is indeed going to be better than the past.
With the country appearing to fall apart around us, business leadership, working with faith communities and civil society activists, can help bring that hope back with big and small initiatives to reassure citizens that we’re not on a slippery slope to becoming a failing state at war with itself.
We need a critical mass of citizens who pledge allegiance to the constitution and will stand up to defend it, not as a piece of paper, but as a living pact on which we have been building our democracy.
That constitution, however, promises much more than the sanctity of property ownership and freedom of the individual.
May I remind you of its preamble?
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to:
- Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
- Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
- Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
- Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
To paraphrase Steve Biko: South Africans, you are on your own. Stop waiting for government or the politicians.
To listen to the song, please click here.