For South Africans and South Africa watchers alike, the key question, muttered again and again is, “how did South Africa get to this point?”

This prolific question was pondered over in detail at a recent Daily Maverick Gathering, where speaker after speaker offered a myriad of views about that which ails South Africa. In another forum, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, former VC of UCT, poet, author and commentator was more unremitting in his critique of that which has taken South Africa to the edge of the precipice in 23 years after the dawn of democracy. His paper was aptly titled Struggling FOR a Future: The Second Revolution. He wrote, “in the first revolution we struggled FOR something; in the second revolution South Africans must struggle AGAINST something”. The struggle against corruption, state capture and crumbling state capacity is a call that unites the entire population. Their shared expectation was and remains for a better, stronger and more united country where the lessons of the past serve as a basis for the future. Instead, we are confronted with a broken economy, a political establishment at war with itself and a fragile social arrangement, which is the antithesis of the fundamental constitutional values of equality, respect and dignity. That the corrosion of these values, and the devastation of social values, is a result of an orchestrated attempt to divide – especially along race, language and class – is evident.

Reference to white monopoly capital to refer to every white person, or “a Gupta” in relation to Indian people, and a myriad other derogatory and outright racist terminology, has proven to be the result of a carefully crafted populist agenda. This, to deflect and divert attention away from the ills that have been inflicted on the country. The Bell Pottinger “effect” ended in tears for the company once it was exposed, and laid bare the capture of the state under the current President. A small cabal of friends and family of the President were enriched beyond words. However, most South Africans, largely black, grow poorer and more dependent on some or another form of social security.  The prospect of finding a job, and getting quality education and healthcare, become more elusive.

It is common cause that the apartheid legacy weighs heavily on the lives of many, but it would be disingenuous to lay all the blame for escalating levels of poverty and inequality on the past. The government in 1994 assiduously crafted law and policy to address the apartheid past and embark on a future that focused on growing and redistributing the economic pie. The dividends would, like a rising tide, lift all ships, in the words of JF Kennedy. That these dividends have been squandered through corruption, state capture and collapse of state capacity, lies at the heart of that wrenching of questions, how did we get here.

Building and rebuilding a country requires express effort. The Constitution provided the basis for a consensus on nation-building and crucially outlined the quality of democracy that bound South Africans together. The process of identifying that which bound us together and divided us elicited uncomfortable debates and discussions, but ones that many felt confident to embrace, in the hope that the future will be brighter for all.

Key amongst the issues that elicited the broadest of consensus in South Africa and still does, 23 years later, is that of tackling poverty. The cost of not dealing with poverty in creating a robust, more equal, competitive and open society requires little elucidation. This theme emerged strong at the 4th Roundtable Discussion of the Centre for Unity in Diversity on 16 November 2017. Themed “The Politics of Poverty and Inequality”, keynote speaker, Professor Andries du Toit said, “in South Africa, a surprisingly large proportion of our people seem to feel that the question of poverty is central to our society. Across the divides of class and colour, and also across political divides you will find people that will agree that the very legitimacy of the post-apartheid social order depend on our ability to deliver meaningful change and hope to the vast masses of poor and vulnerable people”.

That people are poorer today and the national poverty line deeper and wider is a consequence of neglect, a neglect orchestrated by greed and self-enrichment. There can be no excuse for even benign neglect but the ferocity of neglect that is orchestrated and enabled using the levers of the state and crude race populism has proved corrosive beyond comprehension.

Economies can be strung back over time; frayed politics can begin to be repaired at the ballot box and subsequently, but rebuilding toxic social relations is a generational effort. South Africans expected better and invested more in building a country for all over the last two and a half decades. The conspiracy to divide the country along racial lines is a major setback but days of reckoning have dawned. As Professor Andries du Toit posited at the CUD’s Roundtable, might the time be now to recapture the social order of 1994 and renew our vows to each other as South Africans?

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director

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