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True, not magnetic north: Reflecting on Freedom Month

By Erik de Ridder

It is often contended that South Africa has lost its moral compass and the ability to navigate on a moral basis. Libya, the visa-debacle of the Dalai Llama or the collapse of schooling in the Eastern Cape, for instance, serve as cases in point. The magnetic lure of succumbing to a fractured past seems ever present.

Traditionally, the status of a nation in the world is a likely function of its economic power. In our context, it is more likely a case of perceptions around the successful transition to a democratic society. The importance of protecting and enhancing a national identity is fundamental in the development of a country and in defining the position of that country in the world. In either case, protecting and enhancing our national identity is important and is rooted in the fundamental building blocks of the country.

The country’s conflicted past is levered on broad facets of racial and economic exclusion, the peaceful resolution of which gained us our credence in the international arena. For the largest portion of society, the architecture of apartheid and discrimination remains a resolute reality despite appearances. However, an integrated and mixed middle-income urbanised social frame is emergent for an increasing pool of people.

To benchmark progress against these two levers, symmetrical consideration of issues directly situated within the economy and issues of race must be considered — recognising the link between these spheres.

Personal economic freedom can be defined as a state of being in which you are able to actualise your thoughts, feelings and desires in directing your immediate material environment and affect that formation as it is structured beyond your own person. It subsumes a measure of social capital, non-discrimination and the existence of democratic institutions.

The attainment of this freedom for the majority of South Africans remains elusive. Universal liberation cannot be claimed, even in part, until it is comprehensively realised. Democracy has so far favoured existing social and economic power structures, for the most part benefiting the already affluent. For example, the pursuit of liberal policies has entrenched white privilege.

The second liberation struggle is a real ideal, but it must be diagnosed broadly, not in a way that myopically serves popular electoral interests and ignores the entrenchment of such privilege.

The innate hierarchy implicit in economic inequality within the country (and globally) means that one group of people maintains social power over another. Ethically and historically, no one should accept instances where members of the former offer explanations or definitions of the latter.

The nature of Helen Zille’s recent remarks, whether in accordance with United Nations definitions or not, present as insensitive and damaging in a country still dealing with wounds of the past. The social relations between South Africa’s different economic strata are, as a result of history, racially bound. So, a remark about the poor is largely a remark about black people — this is inescapable. Overcoming these challenges is the task at hand.

Engaging in pseudo-debates on social networking sites, especially on a matter as serious as race, signals a removal from reality, a measure of un-fitness for high-level public office in a post-conflict setting and further undermines public confidence by suggesting leaders do not take this challenge seriously.

This continues a systematic undermining of public confidence in the country’s leaders, following the Simelane court ruling highlighting that the President of the Republic had acted unconstitutionally and the appointment of Chief Justice Mogoeng, whom many still believe is unfit for that high office.

South Africa’s political elite has increasingly acted in a manner that has resulted in embarrassing consequences for the public at large and the country abroad. Helen Zille and Jimmy Manyi’s remarks went viral and gave world media outlets news that pictured South Africa as being in the process of untangling, proving incapable of overcoming its past.

The non-issuance of a visa to the Dalai Llama last year, further drew the country to international disrepute and undermined our legacy as a torchbearer for human rights.

The inability of leadership from older-generations to liberate their own thinking disenfranchises lessons learnt from a struggle that endured for centuries, which, in turn makes a mockery of present day sufferings and successes. Learning how to manage our differences in public discourse is of paramount importance.

As a result of this existential crisis, there are clear signs of opportunity for a new socio-political force to mobilize and harness the substantial opportunity currently held out by an establishment found wanting in the face of our challenges. A movement guided by true north (of the moral compass), in response to a need recognised by members of the ruling elite that draws a line in the sand.

A movement that sets out anew to build on our successes and, appreciating the international power of our Constitutional framework and the promise that it holds for a prosperous society, sets out to reconstruct a moral foreign policy as it was intended to restore our mission of peace and reconciliation in the world.

A movement that works expressly to promote social unity, that applies new thinking to develop innovative solutions to our biggest challenges and works to enhance democracy at all levels — premised on a more nuanced understanding of that democracy and the attainment of a larger freedom for all South Africans.

For some, such a movement is not about shame, regret or withdrawal, but about a renewed engagement. For most, such a movement is about unshackling the past, and choosing a midway.

The compromised direction is always the easier option, hence our arrival at this juncture. The present leadership has failed categorically to assign a vision bound towards a prosperous society in all respects. Thankfully, they have laid the groundwork for such a success to become a plausible reality.

To restore public confidence in and relevance of the body politic, that entire body must be innovated, or continue to suffer irrelevance. This innovation must be lead both by individuals inside and outside of the centres of power.

Erik de Ridder is a Civil Engineering and Economics student at the University of Cape Town. He is passionate about the reinvention of the political archetype towards systems, processes and dialogues, which make government and business more transparent, accountable and efficient than ever.