I absolutely love elections! I get genuinely excited about the whole messy process of democracy.
My wife says I’m a nerd and that nobody loves elections. She says they only love the fact that they get a day off work. But the way I see it, elections give the little people like me a chance to have a real impact on the course of history. Who wouldn’t get excited about that?
But this election, not so much. I find myself not only lacking my usual excitement, but apathetic. Having been a lifelong advocate of the crucial importance of exercising ones right to vote, I find myself conflicted over what I shall even end up doing come the 8th May. In the end, I will of course vote – we all must. And hopefully I will find my mojo and enjoy it. But I’m not feeling it; I am depressed at the fact that our country’s politics and corruption, has knocked the guts out of my excitement for democracy and especially our unique, much-celebrated democracy. I am sure I will get this back…I am working on it.
And so, to the big question of who to vote for. I literally have no idea. Can we return to power a party that has quite literally defecated on our dreams; told us that our lives are meaningless in the face of their insatiable needs? A party that has delivered lie-upon-lie-upon-lie and still lies to us?
Can we give our precious vote to a party that has no visible leadership of any kind? That uses the identities of dead people – yes, people who died at the hands of the ruling party – but actual deceased human being’s names, for political gain? I mean what the hell have we become when dead people are fair game to win votes? Identities stolen and used without even asking for permission? And it mustn’t go unchecked that these people were the most vulnerable of all society.
And then there is a party who if proven guilty can be called nothing but evil incarnate; what has happened to the soul of mankind when it wins votes by wooing the hearts and minds of the poor and then allegedly robs their bank? ROBS THEIR BANK!?
This is how I see it: If I vote for either the ANC, the DA or the EFF then I am complicit in the vile and utterly contemptible abuse of the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of our country. Forget all my private middle class concerns of land and the Rand and stock prices and whether we have load shedding today and I can’t power up my laptop. Our poor need not to be poor anymore. Period.
So again, who will I vote for? I am open to suggestions. All I do know for sure is that I have a couple of months to answer this one question: Which party honestly and truthfully has the alleviation of poverty at the heart of not only its manifesto but its track record? That is the party that must get my vote because at the end of the day, poverty – which encompasses the issues of education, unemployment, housing, land, crime, the economy etc – is the only issue that really matters.
Instability is guaranteed if poverty is not addressed – fast.
We recently had a dear uncle visit us from Singapore. He was surprised by the vast number of massive building projects he saw. The number of ‘cranes in the sky’ – a very good bellwether for the state of a countries economy – completely belied what he had heard about the perilous state of our economy.
Alas, we concluded, what a shame that these cranes were obviously an anomaly because we all know that South Africa is teetering on the edge of economic demise.
That week of my uncle’s visit, final quarter GDP growth figures for 2017 were released and the cranes had not been wrong after all. At 3.1% we had enjoyed the strongest growth rate in 6 quarters. This obviously does not mean we are shooting the lights out – and we certainly have major challenges ahead of us – but it does mean that we are growing.
Now the question is, what damage is done when we follow blindly and parrot liberally the lies and half-truths that generally support our political bent? If my uncle from Singapore – and incidentally he is in the forex business – is hearing nothing but bad news coming out of South Africa, you can be sure that this narrative is dominating worldwide. The phenomenon of what I call “narrative sheep syndrome” – blind followers of a particular storyline – will be impacting not only how we are viewed, but on foreign direct investment, tourism and of course employment and poverty levels. We are our own worst enemy.
Similarly – but perhaps even more damaging than the economy narrative – the last few months have been fraught with tension over the issue of land. This has been a worrying example of narrative sheep syndrome because the wrong story with this issue could lead to people fleeing the country and worse. We simply are unable to separate the facts from the fiction and we are being driven by fear that is precluding us from seeing the enormous possibilities that lie within land expropriation without compensation.
To give you a sense of the possibilities, just last week I was exposed to a totally fresh narrative around land and how it can work if we think differently. I had the privilege of spending a few days with colleagues on a remote and extraordinarily beautiful Free State farm. In a valley in the magnificent Maluti Mountains we felt like we were in another country; the way these people are living life again totally belies the news headlines that we had left behind.
Several years ago, new owners bought the land and immediately partnered with the local village residents. Now this in itself is nothing new. But what was new was how they were partnering. They placed respect, dignity and equality front and centre in a non-patriarchal partnership. The land became a holy space of cohabitation and production rather than a bone over which they would fight. We had the opportunity to spend an evening hearing the locals speak about the partnership and there was no hint of the depressingly usual: “Baas so-and-so has been so kind to us – we are so thankful.” This was a partnership in every sense of the word. For example, a lodge and conference centre have been built by local hands – but not by simply contracting them in as labour, but by inviting them to offer their skills and talents so that they are engaged in work that they enjoy. The farm is productive and is now at the centre of a successful cooperative. Oh and by the way, after generations of uncertainty, the owners have given the locals their land. They didn’t involve the authorities in this negotiation, they did it themselves; with the requisite honour and respect that was due to both parties. They sat together as partners and decided what would be right and fair and that was the number of hectares they agreed on.
This is a model of land redistribution that is working because people are willing to think differently and open their hands. Relationship has been prioritised over land.
This story flips the land narrative on its head. We can do this thing well – as we did with the transition to democracy – and be a shining light again to the rest of the world. They made it clear that it was hard work. But it is working.
South Africa is not an easy country to get a handle on and yet we persist in latching on to single, one-dimensional narratives that are dished up by political parties and consumed around dinner tables all over the country. We then spew them forth at every opportunity. These one-dimensional narratives render us powerless to play a role as active citizens. Not only that, but buying into them creates fear which robs us of the creativity that is required to overcome difficult issues.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
There is a very small lad that begs at the stop street outside our Estate on the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal. He is that small because of his severely contorted feet and legs that he drags along the tar whilst heaving himself forward on his crutches. He is 16 years old though he looks much younger and at the same time very old.
As I come and go from our estate, I wonder how a lad like this comes to be in the position he is in; body broken; future non-existent; a desperate human being. But to be totally honest, for me – a member of the privileged class of our country – he often becomes simply another demand albeit heart-breaking, on my wallet. How often I have returned from my day and recoiled as I saw him. With the greatest will in the world, I get so tired of the poverty; the sickening stench of inequality; just too many car guards, too many beggars, too many unemployed people, too many drunkards and drug addicts. One cannot possibly keep up. This country can be overwhelming in its lack. But I am so fortunate – so “blessed” as we might say – that I get to go to my home at day’s end, have a nice whiskey and a hot meal and blot out all that lack from my mind.
And in truth we live constantly in the tension caused by obscene inequality. It is just a part of our everyday reality and our collective psyche has been seared numb; we look but we don’t see; we listen but we don’t hear; we smell but we wind up the window and put on the aircon. But it is simply too dangerous to continue responding in this way – or is it?
Suddenly, a firm capitalist favourite comes to power and the air suddenly smells sweet again. We drink it in and we toast the future. And the little lad at the stop street is less of a frustration somehow. We buy him a pie and a Coke. Now everyone is happy – the post-Zuma vibe is euphoric. The Rand strengthens – awesome! The stock market goes up – hooray! Unemployment will almost certainly decline along with poverty and inequality and crime – woohoo! The NHI is still on the cards; nice idea but…; Free higher education and tax increases to support it – now hold on a moment, it’s getting hot in this kitchen. Let’s rewind a little to all that good stuff can’t we? Expropriation of land without compensation – now stop right there you are going way too far! That’s never worked and it will destroy our economy and it violates our rights and we will go the way of Zimbabwe and who knows who had land stolen and when anyway. Our fear runneth over.
But we have missed the point totally – again: the economy is not the point – dignity is the point; humanity is the point; equal opportunities; long overdue redress – that’s the point. Our little lad at the stop street, what does he care about the economy? After over two decades of broken promises – what do millions of South Africans care? What do I care? I care just enough to sacrifice the cost of a pie and a coke. This is no longer good enough.
In response to the emotional-more-than-economic issues of our time: land expropriation without compensation, free tertiary education, the NHI – we might consider not so much what we might lose – but the lost; those people who do not know what it feels like to live a dignified existence let alone a privileged one. Perhaps we could see – really see – a lad with contorted legs eking out no more than a pathetic existence; a family whose umpteenth shack has been destroyed by fire; a mother – unemployed and destitute – caring daily for her 15-year old Down’s Syndrome daughter on a grant of no more than a few Rand a day. Perhaps we could see the classroom in which 150 learners get packed; see it; hear it; smell it; taste it. Not just put up our protectionist, pseudo-academic arguments for why attempts to right the wrongs – the evils – of the past, will fail.
Perhaps we might not turn first to fear-filled racist rhetoric; parrot the endless “look what happened to Zimbabwe” nonsense. Might we not ask how can we help to restore dignity and well-being to people? Might we not ask how we could possibly contribute to a constructive dialogue around how to bring our people out of poverty and dispossession; how to make land expropriation work? Might we not ask these questions before we ask how we can safeguard our pension/get out of this place/protect our land?
Finally, if we imagine that land expropriation is the most dangerous thing for our economy and our country at large then we aren’t paying attention.
Inequality is the real time bomb.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
“No one is going to lose his or her house. No one is going to lose his or her flat. No one is going to lose his or her factory or industry.” EFF Leader Julius Malema.
Calm is needed around the issue of expropriation of land without compensation. We run the risk of this becoming the most polarising issue of our post-1994 democracy and it really needn’t be. In fact, I would suggest that this issue could – if we view it slightly differently – become one that further unifies us South Africans and strengthens the bonds that have developed between us over the past two decades.
The reason I say this is because most people I speak to or listen to on radio agree on so many of the fundamentals around the issue of land expropriation: They agree that imbalances in land ownership are still a major stumbling block to the realisation of the dream of a fair and equal, democratic society; they agree that land that was unfairly stripped from black people, needs to be returned; they agree that progress in terms of land redistribution has been slow to the point of near non-existent. So, unless we harbour prejudices aside from the actual issue at hand – redress of the wrongs of the past concerning land ownership – we are largely in agreement that things need to change. How often does that happen, especially with such an explosive issue as land?
It is at this point in the land expropriation without compensation conversation that fear kicks in: What will happen to my land? What will happen to the economy (or put another way, my savings, my pension)? And to justify my fear (as if fear needed justifying) I turn to tried and trusted arguments: Look what happened in Zimbabwe; It is a disaster when unqualified people are given land they do not know how to farm.
But these arguments and questions are futile and unhelpful for the very reason that they elicit more fear and bring about further polarization. More useful (if more difficult) questions will guide us back to productive solutions and ultimately, unity – even if we disagree on how things finally get done: How do we empower our people with land in a responsible manner? How do we put our differences aside to make this happen? What needs to be done to ensure that expropriation, or rather redistribution, benefits the recipients and the economy at large? What needs to happen to allay the fears of all current land-owners? How do we ensure food security?
This issue needs to be handled with such levels of care and sensitivity. That sensitivity should begin with us – the citizens – and how we think of and speak about this issue.
But land redistribution (lets be cautious of the language we use to describe this) should happen, and will happen whatever we think and whatever we fear. We must acknowledge the deep pain around this issue and be open to the possibilities that it represents.
“I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around, when they triumph over poverty. I wanna be there when the people win the battle against AIDS. I wanna lend a hand
I wanna be there for the alcoholic. I wanna be there for the drug addict. I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse. I wanna lend a hand.
Send me.” From “Thuma Mina” by Hugh Masekela, as quoted by Cyril Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation Address.
Much has now been written about President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address, but I want to focus in on the above quote. Its use was a tactical master-stroke and very far from fluffy or sentimental. These words were chosen deliberately and are indicative of where our new President is taking this nation and what he expects from both himself and us.
With this quote, Ramaphosa sent two very clear messages. Firstly, he let us know something of the man he is and what his main purpose will be; that he is a man-of-the-people in a very real sense; a man who would direct his energy towards the alleviation of the pain of the oppressed, the down-trodden, the sick and the poor of our country. This was a stinging indictment of his predecessor; it was a brutal poetic slap-down of our last “man-of-the-people” President; the one who gleefully, irresponsibly, heartlessly accepted this title whilst singing and dancing and chortling and raping us.
The second thing the President did by quoting these lines is that he inspired us to join him in his mission to help “turn it around”. “Thuma mina” – “Send me”, was his version of the Obama campaign cry, “Yes We Can” in which the former US President brilliantly commissioned both himself and his fellow citizens in these 3 simple words. In an unusually personal piece by Huffington Post SA Editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee she said: “Suddenly, I want to lend a hand, to be sent. I haven’t felt that for the past decade.” This response is surely what Ramaphosa was aiming for – the mobilization of our people – and has surely been said (or at least felt) by many across the country.
But for this quote not to become a distant, feel good memory; for it to become part of the essence of who we are and how we operate as a nation in the post-Zuma dispensation, we need to spend some time with it and ask what it means for us. For Haffajee and her colleagues in the media former Editor-in-Chief of the Mail and Guardian Anton Harber hit the nail on the head in response to Haffajee’s article: “The best way you can lend a hand is to continue to be a vigilant, active, critical citizen and journo.” For our new President, we all have our views on what this should mean for him.
But for the ordinary man-in-the-street, what do we do to “lend a hand”? In the quote Ramaphosa talks to several key issues that affect people daily: poverty (and by implication it’s parent’s unemployment, inequality and poor or nonexistent education); health issues (including the destructive scourge of addiction) and violence and abuse (crime). What can we do to help ensure a better life for our people in these complex and overwhelming areas? What questions should we be asking of ourselves if we want to say with our President: “I want to lend a hand, send me”?
Before we go to some possible questions, let’s be clear that “me” may include individual actions and that is good and necessary. But let us not discount me in relation to others. It’s all about working together in some form of small “community” grouping – whatever that looks like for you – to help turn things around bit-by-bit. You may already have a group that exists for other purposes – from church home groups to book clubs to a running group – you may want to start a group.
The point-of-departure for this “lending and sending” type of work, is dialogue. The basis of this dialogue should be to come together in these small groups and ask good questions that will spark new seeds of creativity and passion in us. As Albert Einstein famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Here are some questions that might help the dialogue:
As a community/neigbourhood/district, what challenges do we face? Which area of challenge would we like to help in? What gifts, talents and resources do we have in this group (or could we mobilise) that could be useful? How could we begin doing the necessary work using the resources we have?
If you would like assistance, training or resources to help get started, local NGO the Democracy Development Program (DDP) is hosting a workshop called “Send Me”. For more information contact email@example.com and use “Send Me” in the subject line or call 031 304 9305.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter
“My sole aim was to ensure that my self-respect as a proud South African is restored, and that one way of restoring that was to ensure that the people responsible for large-scale thievery and exploitation are held to account.” Suzanne Daniels – Eskom whistle-blower.
Suzanne Daniels is one of the collective honored by the Daily Maverick in their 2017 Person(s) of the Year. The publication used her story and her face – along with Trillian whistle-blowers Bianca Goodson and Mosilo Mothepu – to honour the many brave South Africans who risked everything to expose corruption in 2017. Some of these whistle-blowers will likely never be known publicly – like the #Guptaleaks whistle-blowers. Many are still fighting their own battles legal, emotional and physical.
It is because of citizens like this – brave and passionate about what is right – that 2017 was without doubt the most important year in South Africa’s post-apartheid history. Without them we would be none-the-wiser about the breadth and depth of corruption in South Africa. The journalists and editors who exposed the stories must take major credit too, but the real risk will always be to the whistle-blowers.
This begs the question: Did 2017 and the torrent of putrid, rank evil that spewed forth over the course of the year, just happen, or had the right context been created for a year that would end somewhat poetically with Jacob Zuma’s demise as ANC President?
Sometime ago, I wrote an article in which I considered what I think is Jacob Zuma’s greatest legacy: for the first time since the early days of democracy, we unified in our disgust for what Jacob Zuma himself and those associated with him, were doing. We forgot our differences racial, political and economic and we took to the streets in our numbers, united against a man – and indeed a system – that we knew would wreck our country if we did not act together to stop it. We heeded the battle cry of people like Pravin Gordhan to do what we could to stop the rot.
Whistle-blowers spoke but also writers wrote, lawyers built cases, the public prayed, marched, phoned into radio stations, wrote letters to the papers and excreted all over social media. 2017 saw anger rise in unprecedented ways; we had had enough and mass social action was the result.
This was the context, created by none other than Zuma himself: He forced us out of our comfort-zones, off our backsides and into the arena; he caused us to reevaluate our psychological relationship with leadership; he made us participants in the building (saving?) of our democracy; he forced us to grow up beyond our 23 year oldness and accept that unless the citizens of a democracy work between elections – do more than just bitch and moan – then we cannot expect a different outcome to the one we have just got from him. Zuma caused us to come together and mobilise around a common goal, barriers that had previously existed between us were broken down: We were united against him. Hundreds of thousands, millions of us. I wonder if he knows the gift he gave us?
And now Cyril Ramaphosa. The clear risk we face is complacency; a return to our pre-2017 safe, happy, inactive selves who believe that the bad guy(s) is gone so we don’t have to act anymore. There are two facts here: at the time of writing this, the bad guy(s) were not gone. Secondly, when they are gone there will be more bad guys. That’s life. Ramaphosa cannot save or build South Africa. Only South African’s doing their bit however small, can do that. People love to outsource their citizenry to leaders in high office. But globally that game is up and the “small people” the whistle-blowers, marchers, bloggers, activists, #’ers, talkers etc. – these are the people who are changing the world.
We have about 18 months until the 2019 National elections. That election will be our rite of passage into democratic adulthood – if we make it so. We need to redouble our efforts as the citizen population during this time. We must put the screws on those who are destroying our nation in a way that makes 2017 pale. We must turn the volume up further on corruption and state capture. We must do this even if it is painful; even if our own friends, colleagues or loved ones are involved. We should hit the streets again and demand that Zuma be removed from office and tried for his crimes and we must do the same for everyone who has propped up the system of corruption that has brought our country into such disrepute. We must use this time to heap pressure on the ruling party so as to force a radical re-examination of itself – for the sake of the country and all who live in it and regardless of political affiliation.
We have a golden moment in time now given to us by virtue of us being between regimes and less than two years away from national elections. Let’s not waste it by taking our foot off the gas.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.