“We now stand at a crossroads,” Barack Obama said at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg in 2018. Most analysts pointed to this address as one of his first big speeches since he left office the previous year. The former president of the United States spoke of the “strange and uncertain” times we were in, words which could not be more eerily relevant to recent events seen in South Africa. As Obama reflected on where we have been and how we have arrived, there is a clear opportunity, to once again as a country, reflect on how we have arrived at this moment.
As we celebrate former president Nelson Mandela and Mandela Day and acknowledge his devotion to the struggle against apartheid, for freedom, human rights and socioeconomic equality in South Africa, there are key matters on the state of politics and the frailties of democracy, which Obama brought to light, that are worth discussing.
Presently, South Africa is fighting the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, through preventative lockdown regulatory measures while also administering vaccinations to meet the scourge of the third wave and the Delta variant. At the same time, the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, also referred to as the Zondo Commission, continues to investigate allegations of corruption in the public sector and organs of the state.
The irony is that the events which recently transpired followed former president Jacob Zuma’s incarceration after his refusal to appear before the commission, which was launched by his government in January 2018. Zuma was held in contempt of court and after a judicial battle, he surrendered to prison authorities on Wednesday, 7 July. He is now serving his 15-month jail sentence at the Estcourt prison in KwaZulu-Natal.
The wave of violence and looting that followed his arrest have been startling and overwhelming. The result of approximately seven days of destruction has caused massive damage to economic and social activities in the country.
The fight against apartheid and colonial rule was to ensure freedom, justice and equal opportunity for all people, and socially uplift “historically disenfranchised non-white citizens”. It was an objective which, as Obama stated, “came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world”. Obama argued that Mandela’s forces of progress removed the old structures of violence, repression and hatred which had for too long confined the human spirit. In reconciliation, all people were given a chance to participate in building a better future. The meaning of this progress was to propel the world forward.
But, these objectives are challenged by the legacies of apartheid in South Africa, particularly economic inequality and extreme poverty that perennially contribute to violent eruptions.
The World Bank has recognised South Africa as the most unequal country in the world, which simply means that the economy does not benefit all of its citizens. This is because of skewed income distribution, unequal opportunities and regional disparities. South Africa is fettered by its triple challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment – factors which were highlighted during the recent looting and violence.
That begs the question about the government’s objectives towards enhancing progress and building better futures for all.
There is probably hope that global developments over the past decades pave the way for better futures. For instance, the advance of global integration and new technologies connecting and advancing people and systems of business, social welfare, healthcare and education will potentially make knowledge easily available to all. For now, however, we are still faced with the realities of global inequalities and grinding poverty.
Obama urged that we need to recognise the ways in which the international order has fallen short because of the failures of governments and the powerful elites to address the global issues and contradictions which are threatening the social fabric. He added: “So we have to start by admitting that whatever laws may have existed on the books, whatever wonderful pronouncements existed in constitutions, whatever nice words were spoken during these last several decades at international conferences or in the halls of the United Nations, the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away”.
The objective of constraining excess capitalism has remained an obstacle for governments wanting to provide equal opportunities to all people. The capitalist order maintains indifferences towards the principles of democracy, rule of law, civil rights and the inherent dignity of every single individual. South Africa shows that differences are still embedded within society and in racial and economic groups. Obama maintained that even the United States faced racial discrimination which was clearly demonstrated last year in the uprisings of the Black Lives Matter movement. “The accumulated disadvantages of years of institutionalised oppression have created yawning disparities in income, and in wealth, and in education, and in health, in personal safety, in access to credit, and in women’s rights,” said Obama, a reality which continues to contradict the essence of democracy.
While globalisation and technological innovations have created new opportunities for advancements in economies, they have also threatened sectors such as weakening the demand for labour, weakening the agricultural and manufacturing sectors in various countries, and the ease at which billions can be transferred around the world compounds inequality. In fact, Obama rightfully noted that for most people, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. This means that for most people, there has been no social or economic improvement but continued repression and frustration.
As we recognise the significance of Mandela and his devotion as the first democratic president of South Africa, we need to reflect on the changing times and the effect on citizens. Obama cautioned about the powers which lay with international elites who are far removed from the struggles of ordinary citizens, and influence government and policies in their favour: “And from their board rooms or retreats, global decision-makers don’t get a chance to see sometimes the pain in the faces of laid-off workers.” He added that “strongman politics” and the “pretence of democracy” is now maintained, where explicitly the institutions which give meaning to democracy are undermined, and “mercantilist capitalism” and “authoritarian models” are becoming preferable.
A few years on and we are still at the crossroads, where, as Obama explains, there are two very different visions of humanity’s future competing for the hearts and minds of citizens: the visions of the elite and those of the ordinary citizens. As we reflect on the devotion which our past leaders, including Mandela, pledged for our current realities, what threatens those democratic objectives and how do we address it?
The looting and violence which further devastated South Africa’s economy did not only once again expose the inequalities in the country, but reinforced the ethnic and racial tensions between its people. About 212 deaths were reported, and over 20 000 troops were deployed to contain the situation. The effects will linger. Frustrations have accumulated from years of poverty, unemployment, a growing unskilled labour force and been sharpened by the Covid-19 lockdown measures that closed many businesses. In addition, the corruption in the public sector as seen from the Zondo Commission exposes trillions of unaccounted for state looting. The tipping point became the arrest of Zuma.
Obama said that if we are truly to continue Madiba’s long walk to freedom then we are going to have to work harder and we are going to have to be smarter; to learn from the past mistakes and to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunities for all. Obama also warned that when economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, political power follows suit, eating away at democracy and undermining human freedom.
Mandela once said that, “where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and the powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and the weaker, [then] we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.” Democratic legitimacy comes from the grassroots, Obama adds that it is not from the top down, or abstract theories and experts, but from the bottom up – that democracy is in knowing the lives of those who are struggling.