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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.

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14 Comments

  1. Benzo Benzo 28 April 2012

    “For example, the pursuit of liberal policies has entrenched white privilege” and in the process expanded the numbers of very affluent “previously disadvantaged”.
    The numbers of “previously advantaged” who have fallen to abject poverty is significant, naturally less significant in numbers as they come from less than 10% of the white population group.

    The current ruling elite has not met expectations to create a real “nation” with jointly supported goals for the future. They have largely lost respect and trust if I have to believe the various comments in the public domain. The Sanral issue, with serious implications for the state pension fund, endorsed by the Finance minister, undermines further trust. Just waiting for the ANC leaders to further control the judiciairy and the press.

    Possible solution? A national government with (all) parties involved, serious debates in open parliament sessions to promote consensus and transparency as in a true democracy. Proposed legislation seriously debated and voted for (or against).

    On economic direction? A serious, government supported, move to local beneficiation of resources while reducing export of raw resurces. Emphasis on productivity of the labour force by linking pay demands to productivity numbers and increases of government tarifs to delivery improvement.

    On social issues? Stop the racial divide by abandoning triple BE, the BEE charters and similar stuff.
    Read up on the principles of New Economics (NEF).

  2. Oldfox Oldfox 29 April 2012

    @Benzo,

    Your firsst paragraph almost took the words out of my ‘mouth’.

    White privilege is NOT entrenched. Many whites have acquired skills and expertise over the years what ensures that they earn good salaries, and here I am thinking of those who did not come from wealthy or even upper middle class backgrounds. Their jobs are no longer secure however. Many are offered early retirement. Some lose their jobs, never to earn a decent income again.

    One of the white car guards I chat to when I shop at a certain store told me he was married to a lawyer and lived in a R1.8 million home. He was retrenched and could not get another job as a manager. Got divorced and lost the house. He has children living abroad.

    A white lady who served Black communities with distinction, was spitefully suspended without pay. She was utterly destitute for about 5 years, begging money from friends to survive.

  3. MLH MLH 29 April 2012

    I don’t know the solution, but two paragraphs in the media this morning have convinced me that although the landscape is changing, several people are unaware of it. Both are from well-meaning writers.

    De Ridder:
    “…a remark about the poor is largely a remark about black people — this is inescapable.”

    No longer so, because that infers that no black people are not poor and we all know that several are more than comfortable.

    The other, from Phylicia O in the Sunday Times:
    “My daughters and many other others are fortunate because of where they find themselves – in the buffer zone of middle-class South Africa. Here, race does not define them and my memories of apartheid cannot contaminate them. While they are taught about the country into which they were born, it is a historical perspective.”

    This paragraph perfectly defines almost every white parent and child born into SA’s apartheid era. It is so soon forgotten that the average white person harboured no active hatred and was sympathetic. Yet that is exactly how white South Africans came to be called racist, unfeeling and arrogant. Allowing your family to live in a buffer zone demands reparations; from experience I know that allowing your family to live in a buffer zone demands reparations; from experience I can only advise: get out of your comfort zone completely or you will one day be judged for accepting privilege.

  4. Erik Erik 29 April 2012

    Thanks for the comments.

    Benzo: I noted the growing mixed middle-class in the third paragraph.

    Old Fox: Exactly, many white South Africans have a historical endowment that enables them in this day and age – hence, their privilege has been entrenched – that is not to say it has happened instead of new-privilege creation, which as occurred. It is also not the ‘fault’ of white people; people cannot be blamed for existing – my point is about acknowledgement. Many ordinary South Africans are acknowledging more and more of their history as time goes on, most of our politicians are not.

    MLH: The statement is not mutually exclusive or exhaustive. It notes that it is ‘largely’ true, I acknowledge a shifting landscape.

  5. Benzo Benzo 29 April 2012

    @MLH: “from experience I can only advise: get out of your comfort zone completely or you will one day be judged for accepting privilege”.

    Why stand in the rain if you have an umbrella?? The best you can do is share the umbrella…. :-)

    Some people will protect their comfort zone by extending it; higher walls, better alarm systems and a gun under their pillow case. Others will invite people into their comfort zone. Very few will go outside (or abandon) their comfort zone without some security or guarantee that they will be accepted and not get hurt in the process.

    Would you go for a beer in a shebeen in Diepsloot after dark?

    Our current government -by maintaining the racial divide- has generally done very little to encourage individuals to get out of their comfort zone. It will be a three generations process if we start now. Too much mistrust has been created (see Oldfox comments).

  6. Dave Harris Dave Harris 29 April 2012

    You seem confused Erik. The concept of a moral compass pertains to an INDIVIDUAL not a country.
    Granted the Dalai Llama’s visa-debacle reflects poorly on our government given our past history of oppression. But any democracy can make such blunders that are short-sighted and sometimes make no sense. Whenever this happens we speak out vociferously against these decisions but not condemn the entire country!!! Why is it that most beneficiaries of apartheid have such stratospheric standards for SA. Seeing that you’re still enjoying the fruits of apartheid, isn’t that rather hypocritical?
    Also, the Eastern Cape education system has its problems but to call it “collapsed” sounds similar to the hysteria generated about xenophobic armageddon after the world cup. This system is corrupted but entirely fixable.

    The only way to “restore public confidence in and relevance of the body politic” is for us to form an opposition party that is truly reflective of ALL South Africans, not like that white tribal party that’s hijacked the role of the opposition. to function as a democracy, a true opposition party that can be taken seriously is needed to act as a counterweight to the dominance of the ANC. Tribal opposition parties like the DA, IFP, ID, MF etc. are relics of apartheid politics that have no purpose as true opposition to ANC, since these old relics only reinforce apartheid politics. We need new blood in opposition politics!

  7. Parks Parks 29 April 2012

    ‘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.’
    ‘The innate hierarchy implicit in economic inequality within the country (and globally) means that one group of people maintains social power over another.’

    Good article Erik, but it would read much better (and understandable) if presented in plain english, and not coated to appear as an Oxford style english. For a moment I thought our dear friend Thabo was back!

  8. The Creator The Creator 30 April 2012

    In fact, although a few blacks are not poor, the overwhelming majority of poor people in South Africa are black.

  9. bewilderbeast bewilderbeast 30 April 2012

    “…a remark about the poor is largely a remark about black people — this is inescapable.”
    Only if you rate pigment higher than life itself.
    A hungry person is a hungry person. The problem of (often unnecessary) poverty is a real one, and there is absolutely no need to give it a skin colour. Giving it a colour only distracts from getting down to solving it by insisting on fairness. Colour-blind fairness would benefit ALL poor people. The fact that most of them would be black is a silly statement: Almost any problem you care to mention could have “mostly black” added to it, but for what good reason?

  10. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 30 April 2012

    Yes we must not forget our past but we cannot move forward if we keep looking backwards. The ANC ‘government’ are too busy looking after themselves to worry about anything or anyone else.
    We ourselves have to uplift ourselves and strive for a good life. A good life is not a birthright – – it is a goal that we all have to strive for and work for. No-one deserves anything other than the chance to self succeed. We are all born equal but that is where it ends and always will end. Laws will not make you a better person – blood sweat and tears is what is needed.
    Let’ s put it bluntly – A good education is NOT necessary – it is VITAL. The ANC ‘government’ will not give us this as they plunder all the resources that are needed to be able to provide this service, and they need uneducated voters to vote for an uneducated government. If you want to be ‘extraordinary’ then you will have to do extraordinary things and that means getting your own plans together to get properly educated. Is that going to be hard? Of course it is but, is it harder than having a life of deprivation because you cannot compete with those who have the right level of education? Is this an easy answer? No. Is there and easy solution? No. Will the ‘government’ do it for you? No. So best make plans to do it yourself. Life is like a huge market place where people strive to get the best service and value. Zuma’s so many meaningless words given on “Freedom” day will not create freedom. We have to do it…

  11. Benzo Benzo 30 April 2012

    @Creator: “In fact, although a few blacks are not poor, the overwhelming majority of poor people in South Africa are black.”….
    ……so is the prison population. Until our president lets out all black prisoners and keeps only the white prisoners in. :-)

    An unavoidable situation as the majority of the SA population is black. In China, the majority of the poor will be Chinese while in Europe the majority of the poor is white.

    It is called Statistical spread and predictable with a high percentage of accuracy.

  12. Erik Erik 30 April 2012

    I think the confusion results if you conflate the leadership of the country with ordinary citizens.

    The critique is aimed at leadership and the need for a higher standard.

    Unfortunately M&G removed all of the in-text references that corroborate all of the claims made – in their absence, the content of the article stands alone, which was not the intention.

    Singular leaders, such as Premier Zille or President Zuma perform defining actions that are associated with the country at large. Their individual behaviour affects ordinary citizens and needs to be judged accordingly.

  13. Erik Erik 30 April 2012

    @Dave Harris:

    “Whenever this happens we speak out vociferously against these decisions but not condemn the entire country!!!”

    I invite you to research international popular press on the issue of the Visa – inside the country we may critique the individuals, but international media have the tendency to brand the country in a negative light. Iran, Isreal and North Korea suffer the same fate – so too does Zimbabawe.

    “Why is it that most beneficiaries of apartheid have such stratospheric standards for SA. Seeing that you’re still enjoying the fruits of apartheid, isn’t that rather hypocritical?”

    This is part of the point, there is a nuance in the way that we should approach this issue. As I mentioned in an earlier comment – individual people cannot be blamed for existing. My argument is regarding national discourse as it is developed by the leadership.

    One part of reconciliation is acknowledgement – without acknowledge of our history and without a leadership that narratives that history in a productive light, it will remain a challenge.

    I must emphasise that the main points are not aimed at ordinary South Africans – they are aimed at the responsible roles of leadership in our society, how they are enacted and perceived domestically and globally.

  14. Oldfox Oldfox 1 May 2012

    I have perused several on-line dictionary definitions of privilege. Here is a reference to one of them.
    http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/privilege
    For the life of me, I cannot see how privilege can be generally associated with whites in SA.

    I then looked up definitions of “white privilege”, and while this form of privilege definitely existed and was entrenched in law in SA, it does not apply to the majority of whites residing in SA today.
    http://wik.ed.uiuc.edu/index.php/White_privilege

    I therefore see the usage of the term “white privilege” as a red herring that distracts people from the real issues that are causing increasing inequality in SA, and likewise, hinders the country in finding solutions..

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