It’s up to ordinary citizens. That is the key message coming out of all quarters of South African society. Whether they be anti-Zuma civil society organisations such as Save South Africa, opposition politicians, or the now famously fired Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan, the message is clear. Organise amongst yourselves and act if you want South Africa to change course.
That should be obvious, but South Africa is a long way from its heydays of civil society in the 1980s and early 1990s where rolling mass action brought together vast and diverse swathes of society against the Apartheid government. There is a longing for that kind of action in South Africa, but there is a distinct hesitancy about how to throw oneself into political action amongst ordinary citizens. They have become so reliant on power, in that they have given politicians and administrators/civil servants complete power over their futures.
And naturally, it has been abused, as it was given too trustingly, and with a sense of inferiority towards those who occupy the seats of power in the government and the state. The challenge for South Africa today is how to reconstitute their sense of civic responsibility and their power to hold government and the state to account. There is a sense of waiting to see who will act first, and who will fill the large leadership vacuum that exists where the need for unifying and mobilising civil society is at its height. Whether on social media, or in the flurry of phone calls and inter-personal interactions people are having, the big question is, “who is leading us on this?”
This leadership vacuum presents perhaps the largest opportunity to turn the national South African project around and guide it towards safer waters. Who will take up the challenge remains to be seen. Who will carry it through successfully is also an open question. What is certain, however, is that a consensus is emerging – especially amongst middle class South Africans – that the need to take direct action has never been clearer.
Indeed, ‘pivotal’ moments have come and gone for Jacob Zuma without serious consequence until now, but there is a distinct possibility that the fight may now descend into the trenches prepared to fight to the last. If that is the case, then South Africa will undoubtedly be able to exert the kind of pressure on government that is necessary to recall President Zuma, impeach him, or convince him to resign from his position. But it will take sustained effort, and it remains to be seen whether ordinary South Africans are willing to devote themselves to what has become perhaps the largest post-Apartheid challenge in South Africa since the HIV Aids epidemic tightened its deathly grip on it.
I was surprised – and somewhat amused – therefore, to see the leader of the most successful post-Apartheid civil society based protest group’s ex-leader Zachie Achmat state on Facebook that he was ready to hit the streets, but wanted to know who was going to lead them? It startled me, as it revealed the extent to which nobody knows who to turn to for leadership, even the leaders themselves. It is a worrying situation, but it is not – by any means – a situation that cannot be remedied with effort.
I’m unsure what the timelines may be before such mobilisation becomes effective enough to bring about change, but my intuition is that it will take more than an explosive show of people power that lasts a day or two to turn government around. It will require sustained protest action that brings activities in major cities to a halt. In order for government to feel the hurt, we as ordinary citizens will need to be prepared to feel some of the hurt too.
There is a need, in my view, for at least two types of action. Immediate, regular and/or sustained protest action that occurs in extremely large numbers; where entire cities or at least part of them are brought to a standstill. At the same time, and parallel to the protest action, there needs to be a serious process of movement building that spans across different sectors of society, political parties, civil society organisations, institutions and the private sector. Hence what South Africa needs now, are people – i.e. ordinary citizens – as well as political leaders, who can step into this vacuum and put in the effort to build a citizen base from which civil action can be effectively mobilised on a large scale.
It does not need to be ideological, and neither should it be. It should be issue-based, so that the various and fragmented sectors of society can come together without all the pesky ideological wrangling that dogs the South African polis and sets it back whenever any form of unified action is required from it. South African society remains divided and conquered, unable to mount an offensive and exert power on the government and state and hold it to account. It does not need an overly ideologically driven social movement for change, it needs one that can capture everyday ordinary citizens and help them make themselves effective in the space of political action.
What South Africans need most, is a vessel under which they can come together and feel legitimate within its ranks. That is they need to know that they are standing alongside legitimate political leaders and actors in society, so that they can know and trust that their own actions are legitimate as well. They need to be convinced and given the courage to make the effort to leave their homes and places of work to put a greater cause – i.e. the future stability of the country – ahead of their personal needs. That is difficult to request of anybody, but if the leaders who request it are known for their integrity, for their consistency and incorruptibility, then people will make the effort to stand alongside them in defiance.
I am not talking about the kind of leader who wins elections, I am talking about the kind of leaders who win hearts and minds over with ease because they are honest, whose credibility is unquestionable because their track records are clean and transparent, and whose willingness to go all the way is indisputable. So I am not talking about those who would use this movement and the unfortunate events that have led to this moment in history for party political gain, but those whom society knows stands with them unconditionally, because they are concerned about all who live in South Africa.
When I was a young child I loved getting my hands on the big silver one rand coin that was in circulation then. It had a very simple but effective saying on it, “united we stand, divided we fall”, and over the years growing up I secretly held on to that saying as a source of strength to endure the struggle against Apartheid. Even though that coin was minted and circulated by the South African Apartheid government itself, I, within myself, had appropriated this saying for my own cause. When the UDF was formed and began its campaign that was the way I understood it as a late child and early teenager, that it was about sowing an unbreakable unity; one that no regime could survive because it faced a tsunami, an unprecedented force for change.
That is what South Africa needs now. It needs it, because the South African national project is in dire jeopardy. It stands at a precipice, and we are now looking over the abyss. We are no longer merely looking at it from a safe distance, we have been pushed to the edge to see how we will respond. Will we remain cowered and divided, as we have been for too long now, or will we give life to our freedom by exercising it, by taking power back from the powerful, by holding them to account at every turn and forcing them to look us in the eye when they speak to us? Because only we can do that, and we have to do it for ourselves and we cannot do it without each other. So we better find ways to make unity possible, and fast, because it will only take another push or two for us to plunge into the abyss.
When Nenegate (or 9/12) happened, and the President was forced to make a quick turn-around, the message that our leadership sent out to society was, “let them try that again”, that we could rely on our institutions and society to curb the President’s antics and hold him to account. That the ‘checks and balances’ were robust in our democracy. Well, here it is again my fellow countrymen; this is more of the same. The question is, what are you going to do about it this time round? Wait for the same old processes to grind themselves out and dissipate, or take direct action and bring a serious grassroots based challenge to the doorsteps of power? The choice is yours, and so are the consequences.