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The poor have had enough. Something has to give

Will the poor continue to take an explanation that refuses to acknowledge the role corruption has played in keeping them in poverty?

South Africa is once again either on the cusp of something great or at the edge of a precipice.

One thing we must all agree on is that we do not have another 25 years of experimenting with democracy and promise-keeping on matters of social justice, particularly the quest to end poverty and structural inequality while ensuring a sustainably growing economy anchored in shared prosperity.

Protests and the favourable season for political entrepreneurs whose ultra-left and ultra-right messages seem to be attracting resonance among the left-behind from both historically disadvantaged and advantaged groups, tell us something has to give. It is very clear that those left behind in the enjoyment of democracy dividends are no longer willing to cheer on the side-lines as the democracy gravy train passes them by.

But will the left-behind among the historically marginalised continue to buy blaming the past for lack of basic improvements in their lives despite the constitutional promise of an improved quality of life for all and freed potential of all?

Will the poor continue to accept explanations that their children go to a dilapidated mud school because of the apartheid legacy we inherited 25 years ago?

Will communities accept that they have no doctors, hospitals and roads because of apartheid?

What about those still waiting for land and, worse still, those whose land ended up being given to the new elite?

Will the apartheid legacy be accepted by poor villages whose mining royalties have been pillaged by the elites within the state and their cohorts, as has been the case at Bapo ba Mogale and Bakobong?

In other words, will the poor and other left-behind communities continue to accept an explanation of their plight which refuses to acknowledge the role corruption has played in keeping them in or plunging them into poverty?

Will the people keep accepting a narrative discounting the reality that delivery on social housing has been derailed by corruption and clientelism that have seen RDP housing tenders being given to connected people with no capacity to deliver, who promptly consume the capital in places such as the Free State, North West and KwaZulu-Natal?

Will they forget how education became a cash cow where cheap Chinese stationery was sold for fortunes to government with such cases compounded by overbilling and false billing?

Will they blame money-guzzling blunders such as Medupi and Kusile on apartheid?

Will they accept that there were no better policy choices that could have ensured that government service delivery gave priority to meeting the basic needs of all in compliance with section 237 of the Constitution, while developing the country to ensure global competitiveness?

Will they forget that balancing responsiveness to people’s basic needs with the pursuit of global competitiveness was the hallmark of the first democratic administration under President Nelson Mandela?

Will they forget that this was his constant message and that, while mindful of the apartheid legacy, he was anxious to tell no lies about ball-dropping under his watch, including challenges due to corruption?

If what I have witnessed during Thuma Democracy Dialogues, known as #Demologues, is a microcosm of the mood in broader society, then the time’s up for excuses.

The people will no longer accept glib excuses for non-delivery on the vision behind the struggle and constitutional promises.

They certainly are mindful of the fact that the legacy of 344 years of apartheid and colonialism cannot be wiped out in 25 years or one generation.

But they are not blind to the fact that those like myself who entered democracy as strategically positioned persons due to education and struggle visibility enjoyed political capital that placed them at the front of the queue for picking up the fruits of democracy.

It is my considered view that we could have made better policy choices that were consistent with the Constitution, requiring giving priority to constitutional responsibilities and executing such responsibilities diligently.

I also believe that we did better in this regard during the Mandela years. Why? Because you cannot control what you do not measure.

Secondly, you achieve that which you focus on. During Mandela’s leadership, there was a conscious decision to meet basic needs while pursuing global competitiveness.

At the core of that was the philosophy of growth and redistribution.

Incidentally, it was during the Thabo Mbeki years that we had a policy purporting to foster growth and redistribution.

The policy was spirited in, kicking RDP out. The content and implementation was more about growth and less about redistribution, except to a small elite through the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, which miraculously kicked the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, and its mass inclusiveness agenda, to the sidelines.

The same was done to the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act.

These policy choices, ANC stalwart Ben Turok says, were influenced by jettisoning a developmental paradigm for a fiscal policy paradigm.

I personally think they were also influenced by a trickle-down economics paradigm.

The Jacob Zuma years were characterised by lack of clarity on the broader socio-economic strategy.

Only on the eve of Zuma’s departure, following ugly #FeesMustFall and #OutsourcingMustFall student struggles, did social justice seem to matter.

An undefined ‘radical economic transformation’ became the rallying cry, as did a call for accelerated land redistribution despite the enabling laws having failed to be passed for years.

Again no clear integrated policy on either land or socio-economic inclusion was tabled.

This was also the period when corruption, clientelism and evidence of state capture became rampant.

What will the future hold for South Africa, asked the residents of a posh new estate in the Western Cape recently.

My answer was that the future would be what we made of it. We are on the cusp of something, yet we may be at the edge of a precipice.

Which way we will go depends on how we earnestly tackle both the challenges and opportunities before us. But the ultimate key to progress lies in our doing things differently.

For the new dawn associated with Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascendancy to the presidency to translate into a new day, we simply can’t continue to think and act as we have done.

If we do, we do so at our own peril and that of sustainable democracy, the rule of law and peace. Voters will still vote on promises despite unmet promises. But political parties must know that we do not have available another 25 years of experimenting with democracy and ignoring promises to some of the people in the 4 392 wards.

The poor have had enough. They will force us not to leave them behind and that won’t be neat.

Incidentally, everyone else has had enough too.

If President Ramaphosa wants to keep the pedagogy of hope he entered with, let him “tell no lies [and] claim no easy victories”, as Amílcar Cabral said.

He must lead, with no excuses, for sustainable growth and development that leaves no one behind.

Madonsela is professor and Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University, and founder of the Thuma Foundation and Social Justice M-Plan.

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By Prof Thuli Madonsela
Published 29 April 2019

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About the Chair:

Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law.

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