This month’s local government elections, as with all the successive national and municipal elections preceding them, were a victory for participatory democracy – with the ultimate victor being the people of South Africa, whose will was expressed resoundingly.
We have witnessed a maturation of our democracy with these elections. We acknowledge this fact with Sir Winston Churchill in mind when he told the House of Commons in 1947 that “no one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise”.
There are many lessons that we, as members of the ANC, can draw from the results of the 2016 municipal elections. As before; the people have spoken.
Bold actions are required immediately to arrest our electoral decline as identified by the ANC national executive committee (NEC). These challenges are critical if we are to maintain our position as the leader of society with the capacity to continue driving a transformative and developmental vision; to rid South Africa of the legacy of apartheid. Historical inequalities continue to stand in the way of realizing a country free of poverty, discrimination and injustice.
The ANC has always affirmed that healthy debate and engagement with the citizenry is the lifeblood of democracy. And, equally so, critical engagement within the ANC itself has been the hallmark of our movement since its inception.
This necessitates robust engagement, open to a variety of views and streams of political thinking. South Africa has a robust and free press, bolstered by a strong civil society that makes it possible for this sort of engagement. Hence Plato’s notion of democracy as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder” becomes relevant.
Regretfully, it has become easier to mobilize on social media platforms and newspaper columns than to engage in critical and factual dialogue with both the party and government. We must critically interrogate what has now become the accepted perception that the organization has alienated the electorate to a state beyond redemption.
This includes the perception that the ANC has become “arrogant” – something said to have contributed to the trust deficit between the government and its citizens. In the absence of proper interrogation, myths such as “nothing has changed since 1994” will go unchallenged.
Despite the impressive gains made by the governing party in the years since the birth of democracy, gains that are regularly cited by bodies such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on its human development indices, we are endlessly bombarded with news and media coverage that paints a picture of a country in disarray, wallowing in poverty and underdevelopment, as well as a governing party that’s resting on its laurels.
Although dissonance and dissent are critical facets of our democracy, it is important to also consider whether the society we wish to build should be one that is devoid of constructive criticism, where only the voices of the naysayers hold sway.
Ours is a social compact between the governing party and society. We have – as the ANC – made a call on all sectors of society to engage us as part of the project of rebuilding – to help us realize the future to which we all aspire.
This cannot be achieved through shouting from the sidelines. It needs us to commit to talking to each other rather than at each other as has become the norm.
As the ANC engages in critical introspection following these elections, we take cognizance of the fact that the people are unhappy with our performance on many levels, and that we have to take their concerns seriously. This is a commitment made by the ANC NEC in its statement last week.
The ANC is calling on all South Africans to be part of the nation-building project. This necessitates that we do not sugarcoat our shortcomings but pursue avenues of citizen engagement that will actually make a difference in the way our country is governed.
To accelerate the pace of socio-economic transformation, we need social activists and public intellectuals to work with the governing party and give voice to the concerns of the electorate, not the concerns of those beholden only to power and privilege.
Critical voices are indeed part of a vibrant society but, at the same time, they must help to point us in the right direction by offering concrete and workable solutions to the problems we face as a country.
Sloganeering, blanket condemnations and sweeping statements do not serve the public good, but unfortunately engender greater despondency and despair.
As a country we can do without what Edward Said called “the free-floating intellectual, whose technical competence is on loan and for sale to anyone” (1993 Reith lecture, “Representations of an Intellectual”).
We are calling upon such citizens to engage critically with the instruments that drive the government’s vision and the project of nation building. We need them to engage with understanding and appreciation of the underlying causes of our societal challenges.
We are calling for robust engagement that catalyzes progress and helps move the country forward. As Said has outlined, the intellectual in society should be responsive, audacious, innovative, represent change, and not stand still.
Throughout its history, the ANC has been the home of intellectual engagement and debate. Where an impression has been created that such is stifled, we must then revisit our actions to reopen that door.
The people are their own liberators and we cannot attain the vision of a just society without the active involvement of the citizenry.
Together we must re-imagine platforms of engagement, appreciating both the necessity of the ANC’s structural and constitutional integrity, as well as the imperative of an accessible, open and engaging organization.
As we take stock of the tumultuous political events that have taken place, we have no doubt that they will further shape our democracy in time to come.
We remain convinced that the ANC is the only reliable tool in the hands of the South African people to realize the vision of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous country.
The ANC still remains the only political home for all South Africans who share this vision.
In her book In Quest of Democracy, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said of democracy: “Like liberty, justice and other social and political rights, it is not given: it is earned through courage, resolution and sacrifice.”
Indeed, it is also earned through brave and patriotic voices willing to be part of the solution to address weaknesses and shortcomings where they are encountered.
CDE KHUSELA SANGONI IS THE ANC’S COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND A MEMBER OF THE ANC GAUTENG PROVINCIAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE