Delivered by Trevor Manuel and published by the FW de Klerk Foundation on 02/02/2024 

Today we are reflecting on a set of hugely significant political decisions announced 34 years ago. Those decisions laid the basis for the inexorable and irrevocable changes that are manifested in our Constitution.  One of the challenges that confronts us is how to ensure that successive generations are kept aware of the journey that our country traversed. Occasionally we observe that the perceived urgency of the present tends to dominate over dealing with the residue of the past that still casts a long shadow over the building of an inclusive, caring society.

President FW de Klerk took the plunge with an impact on each of his troika of responsibilities – as Head of State – thus empowered to lead the nation; as Head of the National Party – taking responsibility to drag a party in power for 42 years into a different future and as leader of a government, that had presided over apartheid and thus the darkest period in the history of South Africa. The momentous effect on each of those institutions was profound.

We can continue to debate and even contest matters such as the impulses and conditions that led to the decisions on 02 February 1990, or how much persuasion was required to reach them but we cannot debate the impact of those decisions on each aspects of everyday life. This is what we reflect on and recognise here today.

The most fundamental and consequential manifestations that flowed from the decisions announced 34 years ago are now embodied in our constitution. It is critical that we remind ourselves that it took 6 ¼ years of hard negotiations to adopt the constitution. These were years characterised by intense pain, contested tough negotiations and the loss of too many lives – but the conclusions are indelibly there for all time, as articulated in The Preamble, The Founding Provisions and the Bill of Rights.

The intentions are clear, but we need to remind ourselves that we are talking about politics, which is always a complex topic. The outcomes depend on the nature of the mandate that political parties secure, on the communications of the government with the populace and with the ability of the body politic to insist on accountability. I would like to suggest that this must be part of our discussion here today.

We may wish to pause and consider the extent of changes that technology and real time communications have on the conduct of politics. There are realities that are now starker than they were 34 years ago.

Almost a decade ago, Michelle Bachelet, the then-President of Chile, addressed an audience in this city and said, “Societies want to be consulted in a more complex and complete manner than just through their votes. Stemming from this demand a new objective is won for our institutions and for citizens themselves. And this demand to raise our standards beyond the strict legal sense, giving rise to new forms of dialogue and social consultation is the key for legitimising the entire modern democratic system.”

I suggest that Madam Bachelet’s observations are exceedingly important in South Africa now, as we grapple with trying to understand what works, what does not and why. Importantly, we must continually engage in discussions about how we can improve on all of society.

There is, probably, a surfeit of observations from the press and especially on social media platforms on how broken things are – so I would like to avoid another instalment of the same.

Similarly, there is no shortage of policy advice. I do not want to be too precious about the outcomes of the National Development Plan, but it is worth reminding ourselves that as a broad framework of matters, in need of urgent attention, are well canvassed in the chapters of the NDP. Granted, almost 12 years have elapsed since the document was handed to all political parties in parliament, all of whom accepted the framework, with some obvious disagreements on the margins – this is after all, politics we are talking about.  I would like to suggest that the datasets are probably now too dated, but the essential identification of the actions necessary to produce the kind of country envisaged in the Constitution remains. Regrettably, there is insufficient evidence of a concerted plan for implementation. I will spare you a rehearsal of what the National Development Plan covers.

Yet, there is some of this work that needs to be front-loaded – for example, the task to build a capable and developmental state has become an increasingly important priority. This has been accentuated also by the work of the Zondo Commission that devoted a large body of work to the discussion of the political-administrative interface. Strip away the jargon and this explains that Ministers and Senior Public Servants have different responsibilities in law and different frameworks for accountability. (The same holds true at Provincial and Municipal governments). If you asked yourself, for example, what powers and responsibilities the SA Police Services Act designates for the Minister of Police, as distinct from those given to the Commissioner of Police; could you, in all honesty, say that you do?  The same holds true for each Cabinet member – the primary task of a Minister is to hold public servants in the relevant department accountable for planning and organising their work and for the utilisation of public finances. There is little that gives us the assurance that this is actually how the administration is conducted. Let me emphasise that the essence, as researched and well-articulated, but unfortunately ignored to date, is that the political-administrative interface be strengthened. This focus will need public servants to be “immersed in the development agenda but insulated from political interference”.

Resolving these matters, is actually the task of governance. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Constitution only sets out “the principles according to which the state is to be governed.” The constitution distinctly does not substitute for the continuous act of governing – which is about assigning roles and responsibilities; overseeing the raising and allocation of resources and being held accountable for all of this.  This is the first and most critical breakdown in the South African polity. Calling it out for the purpose of seeking remedy is surely the number one task.

The second issue, and consequent upon the first, is the functioning of the institutions to which the executive – at national, provincial and local governments levels (or spheres, if you must) – are held accountable. This is a serious, if badly underrated, task. One of the key matters relates to the accountability of members themselves. Paul Holden, in reflecting on the outputs of the Zondo Commission observes, “It noted that MPs, upon being sworn in, were bound by an oath to act in the best interests of the country. Surely, the commission argued, MPs should be bound to this oath rather than the directions of a political party that might be compromised by its own corruption and inaction.” Finding a solution to this intractable issue is the second paramount task.

The third task relates to measurement of effort and change.  There is an important presumption in the Preamble to the Constitution that states, that the purpose of adopting the Constitution itself, is to, (amongst other tasks) “Improve the quality of life of all citizens and to free the potential of each person.” If we either do not have the measurements or do not trust those that are produced, how will we ever know that the governments, in each sphere, is making an effort to implement the Constitution? As the old adage states, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!” It is important to apply the same norm to every aspect of public services – education, healthcare, the built environment, policing, access to energy, water and sanitation – no public services can be spared from scrutiny because the quality of each of our lives is measured by an amalgam of all functions.

That third task must be broken into, at least, two discrete elements. The first part relates to the provision of a broad range of public services. The second part relates to the benefits brought by a growing, inclusive economy where a range of matters such as employment creation, battles against inflation and access to food, goods and services are all within reach. The first part is actually provide for in the budgeting process. Each department contracts with parliament (or the provincial legislature), to perform certain functions in exchange for receiving public finances. Sadly, this is not ever adequately utilised by legislatures.  The second part relates to a series of proper engagements between government and business representatives focused on finding solutions to agreed problems. Holding out that increasing numbers of people on welfare grants in a victory for government actually disrespects both the constitutional values and the poor themselves.

The fourth task relates to securing the public representatives that South Africa deserves. I am aware of the very important debate of Constituency-based vs Proportional Representation systems. My submission to you is that it does not even have to be one or the other. There is actually no prohibition on all reasonable parties letting the candidate choices be known before the elections and society then setting the basis for local debates, which must include matters such as the frequency of engagement and that all important question of conscience and oath, versus the party whip.  The idea that party bosses alone determine who the representatives of the people will be, has to be the most anti-democratic measure. Obviously the same holds true for party bosses who can capriciously dismiss public representatives.

The fifth task is to have open and public discussions about the operations of each of our major institutions of governance. Looking back on this day 34 years ago, the “what if” question has to arise – imagine the body politic had changed with time and not ossified, how easier would the changes have been? Or look outside of ourselves at the UN Security Council – it held its first meeting on 17 January 1946, when the UN had 51 member states, the institution retains all of the same operational rules, including veto powers notwithstanding the fact that the UN now has 194 members. For our collective survival, we must recognise that periodic elections are a woefully inadequate corrective measure. We must build in opportunities for review and adjustment to prevent crises that appear unsolvable.

These tasks are eminently solvable. We must commit to tackling them if we value democracy. For those of us with memories that are long enough, we know what live was like in the absence of democracy. We can neither take it for granted nor neglect the responsibility to refresh its tenets and presence and ensure that successive generations of South Africans cherish it in much the same way.

I would like to conclude with a few thoughts from the Brazilian thinker, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who in his seminal work on “Empowered Democracy” speaks of 5 necessary institutional innovations. These are:

  • Raising the temperature of politics;
  • Hastening the pace of politics;
  • Combining central power with local initiative;
  • Establishing distinct authority to rescue excluded and disadvantaged groups; and
  • Gradually enhancing representative democracy through participative democracy.

It is surely within our grasp to modernise and effect the necessary changes. If anything, we owe it to the brave and bold decisions of 34 years ago today and to the intensive negotiations that followed to craft our great constitution. Now we recognise is the challenge is to do far mar than have the constitution, it has to be lived. To live it requires the task of governing within its rules, in the interests of the many.

Thank you.

                                                                                                   WATCH TREVOR MANUEL’S ADDRESS