Marius Oosthuizen
Marius Oosthuizen

Has the time for ‘talks about talks’ come in SA?

The student protests of the last year are reminiscent of the 1976 student uprisings. Those protests were the precursor to a political change in South Africa less than a decade later. When young, educated “born free” South Africans express anger and impatience it’s time to pay attention. They have shown they want action. They want change NOW. A relatively small group of raucous students managed to shut down the nerve centres of education in the country. It won’t be their last stand.

In the wake of the 1976 protests, between 1985 and 1993, there was a concerted effort by South Africans from across the political spectrum to engage in dialogue about the future of the country. It was this crescendo of informal gatherings that set the stage for what would later be the Congress for a Democratic South Africa or as it is commonly called, the Codesa negotiations, where the foundation was laid for the writing of our constitution, the negotiated settlement and free and fair elections in 1994.

Nelson Mandela later said of Codesa:

“The convening of Codesa was like the parting of the waters, opening the way to the promised land of freedom beyond. It was a great victory for the people of South Africa, black and white.” (Address at the Zionist Christian Church Easter Conference, Moria, April 20 1992)

These so-called “talks about talks” which led to a breakthrough at Codesa often took the form of backroom discussions between concerned citizens who recognised that South Africa had come to the end of an era and that the time for change had arrived. The political elite of the time and the then government led by the National Party was simply not ready to face reality and address the country’s problems. It was up to individual citizens from all walks of life – from business to academia, the media and clergy – to bring together contending views and voices and find common ground to secure our common national future.

As we head into the end of 2016, economic growth in South Africa is at its lowest since our transition, social unrest is at the highest since the same period and the prospects are that these trends will rise sharply as an unemployed youth bulge enters the political fray in the decade to come. The government of the day, myopically shielding an illegitimate president in order to protect a collapsing alliance, is similarly unwilling to face reality and take charge of the future of the country.

Are we again facing a rubicon; a time where “talks about talks” are required?

A lot has changed in South Africa since the pre-transition decade. We now enjoy the rule of law within the framework of a rights-based constitution, free speech in a non-racial society and increasingly competitive multi-party politics. However, the lingering legacy issues that sustain the inequality, poverty and unemployment that mark our society mean that economic advancement is critical to sustaining the current order, let alone addressing our challenges. In the absence of economic progress, the very foundations of our current social contract come into question.

A young man named Cameron Modisane wrote in 2014 in an opinion piece entitled “How Mandela’s ANC sold out the economic struggle”:

“We have been sold this lie that the ANC of the late Nelson Mandela delivered freedom to us as a nation. Political freedom without economic freedom means absolutely nothing. What the ANC failed to grasp is the fact that freedom is a holistic entity, it is achieved as is and not a piece-by-piece effort. You are either free or you are still held captive by your oppressors and there’s nothing in between. As things stand we are not free!”

The emerging generation is less enamored by the achievements of Codesa than their parents were, who saw political emancipation as their ticket into the land of milk and honey where the liberation movement would deliver a “better life for all”.

If the last decade under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma’s ANC has shown us anything, it is that the notion of a “developmental state” that considers itself to be the pace-setter for development, where industry and economic expansion is then supposedly powered by business, is nothing more than a liberation movement pipe dream. South Africa simply requires a different approach to addressing the next phase of our transformation. The country requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to bottom-up socio-economic development, town by town, city by city, province by province and sector by sector. Some say it’s time for action and not more talking. Some want a revolution. Some hold the view that constructive action begins with a dialogue between stakeholders of a shared future.

What then would “talks about talks” look like in this dispensation?

For one they would not be primarily between political actors as was Codesa, but instead between social and economic actors accompanied by their counterparts in government. Secondly, whereas the ANC was able to represent the majority of South Africans as a “broad church” during the Codesa negotiations, South Africa’s new emerging class structure is now much more complex and would necessitate representation by communities not represented by organised labour or so-called community leaders who have participated in institutions such as NEDLAC. The youth and student movements and a more nuanced spectrum of black political interests would need to be engaged.

Some have reacted negatively to the proposal of an “economic Codesa”, fearing that it would undermine our free-market mixed economy with the accompanying progressive labour and regulatory regime that has marked South Africa since democracy. In reply to those fears one might observe that the absence of a new socio-economic pact might derail more than the economic status quo and put the entire socio-political arrangement at risk in less than a decade. There are no guarantees that the Rainbow Nation can be brought back from such a brink.

So if the time has come for talks about talks, to again harness a proudly South African competency to navigate out of crisis through dialogue, who should be in the room? How should the discussion be framed and what should be on the table for debate?

Can South Africa again forge a democratic path out of the current inertia?

Marius Oosthuizen, Prof. Nick Binidell and Dr. Ruben Richards are members of the steering committee of SEFSA, the Socio-Economic Future of South Africa, an initiative convened by Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba. SEFSA seeks to provide a platform for constructive engagement between South Africans aimed at improving the socio-economic prospects of South Africa. SEFSA continues to convene leaders for dialogue to this end.

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