Winter School
Winter School

Less worry, more wake up

Submitted by Anthea Garman.

Across 16 single lectures, one workshop devoted to education and a series of two about the law, it was extremely interesting this year that many of the Winter School speakers chose this moment to publicly express their worry about the state of nation.

To give you a sense of some of their opinions: Deborah Posel (the director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research), said what we are seeing in South Africa is the “erosion of a state”. We don’t have a government but a party running our country, she said. “We have to move into a politics where people are mobilised into an active citizenry that holds the state to account. It is extremely dangerous now in South Africa to trust the state.”

Judge Dennis Davis concluded his series “The use and the abuse of the law in South Africa” (presented with Advocate Michelle le Roux), by saying those precious institutions we put in place to build our bridge to democracy for all — the Constitutional Court, the new set of values and norms — are fragile, even “failing”, and that without public intervention and political will, even the judges won’t be able to protect these institutions.

“There is great anxiety in our public domain,” he said, asking the question whether our courts are being used again to criminalise legitimate political opposition. “We are anxious, and indeed should be,” he said.

Brent Meersman, former chief of staff for politician Patricia de Lille and now theatre critic, said: “We are disempowered by the rhetoric of our leaders right now. I’m picking up my pen, writing books (Primary Coloured), other people are joining organisations. We’ve been saying, okay if our institutions are strong then our politicians can come and go and some of them will have negative effects, but the institutions will remain. But our prosecuting authority is in trouble, our Constitutional Court is in serious trouble. We have to see civil society wake up.”

Mary Metcalfe, head of education at Wits University, speaking at the Legal Resource Centre workshop on the right to education, said the remedy for what ails the most important system to drive our transformation is “a new sense of activism, this won’t happen through the resurrection of the old structures. It must all be in a much more inclusive way”.

And that’s not to even touch on the Andrew Feinstein lecture on the $65-billion squandered in the arms deal (which has driven him to relocate to London and join the British Serious Fraud Office in a major multi-national investigation of arms dealing worldwide), or the Ashwin Desai comment that there is a great “poverty of intellectual thought” about the globalised world we’ve joined, and why we’ve been surprised by the recent xenophobic attacks.

Or even the Sandile Memela opinion that despite the change of editors and media owners from black to white, journalism in this country still operates with the same mindset and that ordinary, African people still don’t have spaces for “untrammelled expression” (the promise made by John Tengo Jabavu when he started the first paper for African people in 1884).

“Human rights”, shorthand for that whole new culture and mindset that we signed on to in 1994 as the way forward for all of us, to quote HRC chairperson Jody Kollapen, “have just not been internalised”.

These perceptive watchers of our public domain and the health of our democracy also think that intervention is very possible and it should come in the form of a very active citizen participation. And it should happen now. But, as many of the speakers also pointed out (notably Kollapen and Posel), the work of the TRC did not go down deeply enough into our society, so we also need to continue the engagement with each other, even if it feels so 80s to do the work of listening and seeking to understand each other again.

Anthea Garman is the Winter School coordinator at the National Arts Festival.