Jay Naidoo’s Van Zyl Slabbert memorial lecture: We are a nation against the ropes
Honorary lectures provide momentary and welcome pauses in the grand and restless churn and mess of everyday politics. Particularly three weeks before a national election when politicians are let loose on the citizenry, dancing, handing out wads of cash, kissing babies, stirring pots of pap, making wild promises and in some cases lying without second thought.
These lectures also offer spaces for reflection and engagement in a disturbingly bleak landscape when it comes to much-needed public debate, particularly at this critical juncture in the history of the ANC and the country’s young democracy.
For an hour or so, a prominent and influential figure gets to capture (and hopefully ignite) the attention and imagination of those gathered and who hope to find context, inspiration and most importantly hope as well as the possibility of renewal after 20 years of democracy.
Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, who died in 2010, was, as Christi van der Westhuizen later reminded the young audience, a working-class Afrikaner who “rose to the highest level of the white English-speaking establishment. Who then had the courage to address the fundamental political question that had dogged liberalism in South Africa for many decades and that is its complicity with white supremacy”.
Van, as he was affectionately known, began his political career at the University of Stellenbsoch and changed the course of South African history, firstly when he dramatically resigned from Parliament as the leader of the opposition, the PFP, in 1986 because the “institution lacked legitimacy” and later for drawing together the first group of prominent Afrikaners to meet with representatives of the ANC in Dakar in 1987.
The audience gathered to hear Naidoo and a panel consisting of “political economist”, Professor Sampie Terreblanche, author and former journalist, Van der Westhuizen, and student leader, Shomane Mathiba address the topic “20 years later, how do we deepen the roots of our constitutional democracy?” was largely made up of students and young people, those South Africans who will soon be voting and shaping the future of the country.
Introducing Naidoo, Professor Russell Botman, Rector and Vice Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch, said that one of Van Zyl’s lessons was to ask from which vantage point individuals needed to challenge their critical citizenship.
“Do I do it from inside the establishment or outside? Who is willing to walk alone if that is what must be done?”
Picking up on Botman’s idea of the vantage point, Naidoo introduced himself as “free agent, or rather, I would prefer to call it a free citizen, that is what I spent my whole life fighting for. I said to my dear friends in my own political movement, the ANC, that I owe my loyalties to God, the Constitution and my own conscience. And if you don’t like that, well, we are surrounded by two oceans. The Atlantic and the Indian. They can go jump in either one of them”.
Naidoo, as expected, did not hold back telling the young audience that while there was much to celebrate, “South Africa is a country on the ropes”.
“Twenty years later, a milestone, a journey from the darkness of authoritarianism to the light of democratic governance, we should be celebrating, we should be dancing in the streets, we should be thanking our lucky stars that we are not Syria, Sri Lanka or Nigeria where there are conflicts that take people’s lives,” he said.
Yet South Africans were not in the mood for a party as “across the country our poorest areas burn and seethe in the same way they did during Apartheid.”
The roots of our democracy could have deepened and we could have made more progress tackling inequality and poverty, he added, were it not for the spectre of corruption and members of Parliament who were accountable to party bosses instead of the electorate.
He reminded those gathered that in 2004, Van Zyl Slabbert had been appointed to draft legislation for a reviewed electoral system, a report, said Naidoo, which highlighted that the “collective responsibility at five-year intervals is insufficient to ensure political accountability”. Van Zyl Slabbert’s report, he said, needed to be dusted off and brought back into the public debate.
Apart from this, Naidoo also called for more transparency with regard to political funding so that “the rich to not buy elections”.
Democracy, he said, was only as good as it delivered to the people and that it was preposterous that some were “up in arms” because we have been displaced as the biggest economy in Africa “when 12 million people go to bed hungry and without food.”
Across the globe, said Naidoo, people were building their own lives no longer waiting for government and no longer regarding the poor as victims, but as people who have skills, social capital and who want the lives of their children to be better than their own.
“When I started organising workers it wasn’t in the townships, it was migrant workers who were living in hostels in brutal conditions who had no who were the most poor, the most illiterate. They had nothing to lose by their chains. They are no longer the leadership of Cosatu.”
And while technological advances had taken society forwards, our human values “have gone backwards”. He called on the youth to recognise that we all had inherent dignity and inalienable rights as a human family based on freedom, justice and peace in the world and that what the next generation needed to do was translate political freedom into meaningful opportunities as enshrined in the Constitution.
“Society will fail if we stop caring. It fails if those in power seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. It fails when the people lose trust in their leaders,” Naidoo said.
Overcoming poverty was not an act of charity, but an act of justice, and “like Apartheid it is unnatural and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings”.
Finally, he noted, that we had perhaps been looking for leaders in the wrong places.
“Instead of looking up, we should be looking down, to the people.”
Asked during question time whether he had joined the “”Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote no!” campaign, launched by ANC veterans Ronnie Kasrils, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and endorsed by at least 100 party veterans, Naidoo replied that he had not, but that “I understand it and dismiss attempts to undermine them. I share and understand their sense of dis-ease. I want to go back to the ANC that brought us freedom and Mandela’s commitment to service.”
He also said he welcomed the establishment of the EFF, that it would create excitement and draw young people and that it would “shake up Parliament.”
Earlier in the evening, Holger Dix, resident representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who hosted the lecture, said that the results of a 2013 focus group discussion with the legal fraternity about the Constitution showed that South Africans had limited understanding of the Constitution.
“They seem to use the document solely for the benefit it provides. In other words, their focus begins and ends with how they can use the Constitution to justify their action or inaction,” Dix said.
More worryingly, Dix added that South Africans, including political leaders, had not “internalised the values of the Constitution and the very democracy on which the country is founded.”
This effectively compromised the independence of each branch of government, politicised the courts, negated the work of Chapter Nine institutions and nullified the oversight function that Parliament and its committees could exercise.
Dix had, in the past few weeks, examined reporting on the upcoming elections, spoken with different politicians and parties and analysed election manifestos.
“When I summarise all the impressions, I come to realise that South Africa has to invest in the political education of its people and political elites in order for democracy to be stable.” DM
Photo: Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert (Sally Shorkend), Jay Naidoo (Tessa Louw)
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