Great gains have been made since Nelson Mandela became President in 1994. The first is that the old guard racists have in general come to realize that there is no going back to the apartheid past and though older people find it difficult to break down the walls in their heads that make it hard for them to behave with simple courtesy and tolerance towards people of other races, young people, again with some striking exceptions, appear to socialize in fairly normal ways. The exceptions where overt racism appears as at one of the former Afrikaans universities lead to huge outcries of disgust.
Thabo Mbeki was the Deputy President for the whole of the first five years of government and created and ran the new administration – a new public service organization – and new democratic political structures for the functioning of parliament. At the same time the need for widespread discussion to enable the democratic promise of the Freedom Charter and its realisation in our new Constitution makes everything government does take a very long time. Our Constitutional Court has been vigilant in upholding democratic rights of citizens and organizations against the demands of government officials and sometimes Ministers and that has been a very positive development. But within the ANC and government our list system of proportional representation makes it almost certain that personal likes and dislikes and some nepotism would emerge because that is the way of ruling elites everywhere. Failures by a cluster of Ministries to achieve their goals led to a committee to oversee a committee to solve its problems. And within that set up, the intellectual brilliance of President Mbeki plus his constitutional powers to appoint certain officials (and therefore to get rid of those who disagree) ensured an excessive centralization of power. It was a style that was perhaps necessary at the beginning but when it became entrenched it began to hold things back.
President Mbeki established a remarkable track record and his efforts to ensure that South Africa and Africa as a whole are influential in world affairs through the African Renaissance, the leitmotif of his Presidency, have been very successful. Having on various occasions persuaded African Presidents not to change their countries’ constitutions so that they could be ‘Presidents For Life,’ he accepted that for himself too. He would serve two terms of office as President of the Republic of South Africa. His decision to allow himself to be nominated, as he put it, for a third five year term as President of the ANC was inexplicable other than that he believed that only he had the answers to our problems. But his arguments against third and further terms in office for national presidents were equally relevant, namely that patterns of government decision making, policy and implementation become entrenched and encrusted with the top people unable to recognize that the very success of the policies they have implemented require new solutions from people with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. At the ANC National Conference in December 2007 he was defeated in an unseemly political contest that he had no hope of winning. His candidature left the organization divided.
Some members were expelled and some resigned from the ANC. If he had wanted to ensure an internal opposition to his successor he himself had to stand aside because the tensions had become so strong the very fact of his accepting nomination, even though it was legal in terms of the ANC’s constitution, would result in a split. What puzzled me was that not one of those who had access to him such as members of his cabinet or National Executive Committee comrades, called on him publicly, not as President but as Comrade Thabo, not to stand for re-election. That for me was the measure of the excessive centralization of power that had developed. It was such a pity because President Mbeki, despite disagreements I have over some of his policies and practices, was an exceptionally capable and innovative politician. In the end he was compelled by the new executive committee to resign as National President a few months before the end of his term of office. I found that the decision to “recall” the President was more an act of revenge by some elements in the leadership of the ANC who had been previously sidelined and humiliated by him, than a matter of political principle.
A consequence of the sharp turnover of top members of the ANC was the formation of a breakaway party called the Congress of the People. Some of those who resigned said they had done so because of the indignity heaped on President Mbeki when he was recalled and resigned the presidency. My interpretation was that some of them had lost very heavily in the election of members of the ANC National Executive and would not be kept on as Ministers under a new President and therefore had nothing to lose by resigning. It was disappointing to see the breakaway but I have to admit this was a test of our democracy. The new party did less well than they hoped in the national and provincial elections in April 2009, but they participated and won seats in all nine provinces. They campaigned freely and though there were undisciplined ANC members who resented the new party, they need not have worried excessively because its election campaign was not based on any clear policy differences with the ANC but on personalities and style.
Nevertheless it is clear that the ANC will not be able to continue forever as a political party that still tries to preserve its unity as a cross class liberation movement. Interests of business and workers well organised in trade unions cannot be forever managed within a single party. There will at some point be a separation along class lines. COPE, from its pronouncements appeared to herald such a division and took its position to the political right of the ANC, Economic policies have been inadequate to provide jobs in a globalised world economy. Growth of the economy has not produced the formal jobs that are absolutely necessary if we are to achieve real and sustainable improvement in the lives of our people. South Africa has been affected by pressures from the World Bank in the early years of the new government which inherited a technically bankrupt state from the apartheid regime.
I think the building of stadiums and infrastructure for the FIFA World Cup has demonstrated the need and the possibilities of state intervention in the economy to create long term employment. This will have to be taken further. An uncontrolled market system with uncontrolled and investment in extractive industries is not the way forward if the capitalist market system of production and distribution is to put our peple to work. We have to cut unemployment, or rather create jobs, in the formal economy so that we can reduce the number of jobless people from well over 40% percent to say 15% to 20% in the next 20 years. I cannot see a socialist revolution in the near future but the idea of unbridled greed and exploitation cannot be allowed. I believe that our hopes of a non-racial and non-sexist society are inextricably bound up with the creation of sustainable jobs that give people not only an income but the dignity of providing for themselves from their labour. I pointed out in my report on a training course in India and Malaysia that South Africa is now developing a national economic planning unit and monitoring system to speed up development programmes in sectors where they are most needed.
There is a tendency among some elements in the ANC to subvert the Freedom Charter and the Constitution by seeking to deny the equality of all who live in South Africa. This takes the form of a tendency to try to divide the cake of the economy into ever smaller pieces when what is required is a bigger economy more equally distributed among all our people and that again requires job creation and closing the gap between starter wages in the economy against the huge salaries and bonuses of management.
Bertholt Brecht in his poetry dug deep to show the humanity of our socialist thinking and the activist revolutionary lives we led in seeking to make a better life for our fellow human beings. In South Africa now, as I write, there are deep wounds engraved in our psyches. All of us find it very hard to see people. We see groups defined by race who were the oppressors and the oppressed, and who were the most oppressed. It is not as easy to build a nonracist society as we thought it would be. It is even more difficult to build a non-sexist society where too many men see women as meat to be taken rather than as fellow human beings, activists, thinkers, companions, mothers, daughters, friends and the bearers of the seeds of the future who need to be respected and in their personal relationships, loved.
Brecht’s poem To Posterity as I have previously said captures the harshness of the struggle for freedom and the wounds it inflicted on us, the freedom fighters. But it is no excuse to say that because we were hurt that we have no choice in the way we govern now that we have acquired power. We sometimes seem to forget that our purpose was in the words of Nelson Mandela, “to be free it is not enough to cast off our chains we must so live our lives that we respect and enhance the freedom of others.” The Carpet Weavers of Kujan Bulak in another of Brecht’s poems live in a poverty stricken village on the Trans Siberian Railway, deep in Central Asia. The order comes from the far off capital that they must collect money to buy a plaster bust in honour of the great Comrade Lenin. They collect the money but a revolutionary army veteran proposes that instead of buying the plaster bust they buy oil to spread on the bog to kill the mosquitoes that spread the illness that makes them weak with fever. They follow the suggestion and having destroyed the source of their illness, another veteran proposes that they put up a plaque saying what they have done so that all who pass by can see it. And in so doing they have improved their lives and honoured the great leader. Brecht movingly shows that we have to turn our theory and wishes into practice because it is action that translates fine visions into reality. Empty formalised ceremony is no substitute for actively building our new society through working together.
It was a great pleasure to be invited by the ANC Parliamentary Chief Whip to address a gathering in New Town Johannesburg in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday on 18 July 2009 when the first Mandela Day was inaugurated as an official day of celebration and re-dedication to building our non-racial, non-sexist democracy. The speech I prepared was a call for morality in public life and service through principled decision making in the interests of our people and not in the interests of the decision makers who look first to their personal interests
Nelson Mandela said when he was released from prison that we are not yet free we are only free to be free. And so I say to my fellow South Africans, our future is in our hands and like the carpet weavers of Kujan Bulak it is we, and only we, who can build our country.
In my letter to the apartheid President shortly before I was released in 1985 I said:
The South Africa we wish to see is one in which our people can live together in peace and friendship; a South Africa in which the creative potential of our marvellously diverse peoples can be liberated for the material and cultural enrichment of us all. We know that despite their diverse cultural backgrounds, all the people in our country ... want essentially the same things: to earn a living, to be together in their families, to see their children well fed and educated, to laugh a little...... Skin colour, in this fundamental sense, is irrelevant to our hopes and aspirations. Does it matter that one cultural tradition prescribes stywe pap and tjops for enjoyment, while another specifies putu and the same cut of nyama, or that yet another prescribes yoghurt instead of amasi?
Writing towards the end of 2012 it is clear that achieving political democracy without striving for a more equitable sharing of the wealth of our country has left us with serious social and economic problems. The Randburg Ward 102 Branch of the ANC has renamed itself the Denis Goldberg Branch and I was asked to make the First Denis Goldberg Annual Lecture on 6 October 2012. I called it Close the Gap in recognition of what we have still to do to achieve the equality we speak of in our Freedom Charter and the Constitution of our new South Africa. In a certain sense my lecture summarises my understanding of where we are in our transition from the old apartheid era to our new society in what we call our National Democratic Revolution. This speech was delivered in the aftermath of mine workers at the Marikana platinum mine in the Northwest Province going on strike for higher wages. The strikers themselves killed other eight workers and two policemen. A week later the police opened fire on the strikers and killed 35 and wounded many others. A Judicial Commission of Inquiry has been instituted by the President to determine the immediate and deeper causes of the strike and the violence that occurred.
In the political sense we have of course made fundamental shifts in the relations between the peoples of our country. We have a wonderfully democratic constitution arrived at in the end by talking, arguing, and achieving agreement between the elected representatives of all our people (more or less). Our constitution sets out many goals that we still have to achieve in terms of equality and the restoration of the dignity of our people stolen from them by the history of colonial and racial oppression coupled with economic exploitation or super exploitation. It is the Inequality Gap, the disparities in the opportunities we are able to offer our people, that we must deal with; the gap between urban people and rural, poverty stricken or well off that we have to close with all the efforts we can muster. It is clear to me that it will take a number of generations to achieve all our goals, but that means we must work even harder if we are to remain true to the principles of our struggle led by the ANC and its allies.
I am critical of some of our allies in the ANC led Alliance and in particular I am puzzled that the trade unions that played such an important political role in the United Democratic Front in the apartheid era now play power politics and do not provide a lead for their members to be vital and dynamic agents for change.
The emergent trade unions of the nineteen seventies and eighties established the principle that working conditions did not stop at the factory gate. Living conditions, education, and health care were all part of the conflict. Have we forgotten this? How is it that so many who came out of that period of struggle became high ranking politicians and top civil servants and then fled the governmental scene to get rich quick? It seems that for them earning ten times as much as an entry level worker or teacher was not a quick enough route to wealth. They felt that being in government and trying to sort out the mess we had inherited was too frustrating. Did they stay to sort out the mess? No! Too many went into business and into the easy tasks of media criticism and unobjective crudely biased negativity because sensation sells media. Criticism can be valid and necessary, but the frequent misrepresentations are hard to swallow.
The critics say nothing has been done, but Building close to 3 million homes is not nothing Providing clean water for 12 million people is not nothing Seeing universities populated by students who were once excluded is not nothing Seeing millions of children in school who never went to school is not nothing Though rural schools lag behind there are many schools where passionate educators get good results and that is not nothing There are more and more facilities for sports and more tens of thousands participating and that is not nothing.
The miners of Marikana have been the spearhead of the newly re-awakened realization that we have not changed the basic relationships of low wage cheap labour and high waged skilled labour and even obscenely high salaries of supervisors and managers in the private and public sectors
I know that public service workers are entitled to better working conditions and wages or salaries, but they are also citizens and too many of them have abdicated their role in transforming our country. If education is such an important element in transformation, why do teachers as citizens not exert every effort to help train our children and youth to the best of their ability? Many do, of course, but many do not. Why do teachers, as teachers and as citizens, not demand of their colleagues in the management of provincial education departments that they do their jobs to the best of their ability?
I see millions of people being treated in hospitals and clinics who had no hope of treatment before, and I do know that many thousands still have to wait too long for treatment in facilities that are bursting at the seams. I also see officials in management positions failing to solve the problems and health workers giving up instead of helping to find the answers.
Our generation of activists were prepared to sacrifice our liberty and our lives for freedom for all. I ask the younger generation of twenty and thirty year olds what are your generations ready to sacrifice to achieve freedom from economic deprivation? That is the task we are engaged in. I am optimistic. We now have a 30 year infrastructure and human development programme developed by the Planning Commission instituted by our current President. Well implemented, it has the capacity to transform our economy, provided that we can overcome the apartheid era’s system of masses of low paid workers and high paid skilled workers and managers, still mainly white, which is what apartheid was really about. That is our urgent task.
For me personally the work continues within my community to try to realize in practice the vision we had that our children shall not be hungry, shall be well cared for, go to school, have jobs to go to and to be able to laugh a little. And so brass bands and music lessons for historically disadvantaged children and the hope that being bound together by the chords of the music they make they can enjoy that future so beautifully depicted by Dominic Benhura’s skipping child for whom life is clearly wonderful.
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And so I say to those born after, I say to posterity, go and build our nation because you are free to do it.