Winter School
Winter School

Stand up and be a citizen

Submitted by Anthea Garman

As a result of chairing 10 Winter School talks (at this point) I’ve started to feel a growing a sense of urgency about being a South African, a citizen and a member of a civil society in need of revival.

Just to give you a sense of what’s being said at this year’s National Arts Festival talking space:

On Friday, Clem Sunter (consummate speaker, scenario planner and future weaver) gave us an insight into his 2006 trip to China to meet Politburo members and the Central Party School. He and colleague Chantell Ilbury took the Chinese leaders through the scenario-planning exercise they use.

While you can consult Sunter’s website for the fascinating responses, what struck me was his closing remarks about this country. Basically, South Africa’s present leadership is squandering the goodwill and standing this country had in the world post-1994. But more than that, he sees us rapidly descending to “failed state” status. This is where we land up perhaps being “poor but peaceful” but certainly without the capacity to give all South Africans a better life. What is needed, concludes Clem, is “inspirational leadership” that:

  • understands the international game being played (especially in relation to China, which has declared its particular interests in Africa’s resources);
  • motivates everybody (it is critical that we regain the sense of inclusion and that every South African is proud to be one);
  • holds those in power accountable and fires the incompetent; and
  • fixes the problems and doesn’t endlessly analyse them.

So that was round one.

Second was Ashwin Desai (author of the recent Inside Indenture) reminding us that globalisation in the form of Fifa and the 2010 World Cup just might bite us hard. Fifa will win, but who will lose? (And Desai, an ardent beautiful game fan, is not sure that even the players and the fans will get what they want — see Thandanani Mhlanga’s blog on Desai’s talk.)

Third was Jody Kollapen, chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, taking stock of how little progress we’ve made in internalising human rights, how little progress we’ve made towards that lofty and important goal that “South Africa belongs to all who live here”.

Fourth was Dr Abdulkader Tayob talking in very nuanced and textured ways about the 300 years that the Muslim communities of South Africa have negotiated life here and engaged in various forms of politics, and hearing him carefully push his questioners to think more thoroughly about their black-and-white opinions and to be more willing to understand the complexities of Islamic ideas and thinking.

Fifth was author and journalist Darryl Accone talking about the recent high court ruling that South African-born Chinese now count as “coloured” for the purposes of redress. Accone called the minister of labour’s reaction to this ruling hate speech and said it was extraordinary that a government official could express such ignorant statements in public.

And finally, and sixth on my list, former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein’s damning account of the arms-deal finagle that saw taxpayer money not only going into certain individual’s pockets but also enabling the ANC to hire an American PR machine to help it win the 1999 election.

Feinstein said he wouldn’t be returning to South Africa as a resident (he’s now in London working with the British Serious Fraud Office on arms dealing all over the world) until this mess was investigated, and he didn’t think either Thabo Mbeki or Jacob Zuma had the moral integrity to lead either the ANC or the country. “Is this the party of Luthuli, Tambo and Mandela?” he asked.

Many of these speakers urged those attending the Winter School to become again the civil society we once knew in this country: loud, outspoken, demanding of accountability, direct about our needs and expectations.

So, I conclude, the years of legitimate government have lulled us into a silence. Now that we see around us very significant signs of danger, we know (from past experience) that we — the ordinary citizens — have the power of speech and disagreement and that we should use this power.

I resolve from now on to end my silence. And to assert: I’m a South African, I belong here, this is my government and my country and there are certain things I do not want done in my name. I resolve to talk, to start conversations, to listen, to seek to understand and to do the work to get into and through complexity and complication. But I don’t think this country is being served any longer by those of us just watching events unfold.

Anthea Garman is the Winter School coordinator for the National Arts Festival