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South Africa at a crossroads of despair or hope

Dr Iqbal Survé is chairman of the Sekunjalo Group.

Dr Iqbal Survé is chairman of the Sekunjalo Group.

Published Jul 18, 2021


Mandela Day 2021 will be marked for several reasons this year. On the upside, the coalescence of true community spirit across the country, bearing testament to former president Mandela’s legacy of ubuntu. The downside – the lawless unrest that prompted this united effort.

Since 1994, we have never experienced the kind of despair, destruction, and volatility we are faced with now. The decision of the Constitutional Court to imprison former president Jacob Zuma was a watershed moment for the country, ultimately leading to violent protest.

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Morphing into wholescale looting, the protests placed a strain on food and medical supply chains, as well as destroying property, loss of lives and the threat of further unemployment.

To counter, the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF)were deployed to marshal the unrest. Then, revelation by security agencies of a plot and accusing instigators (with no proof) and announcing the arrest of an alleged ringleader.

In the middle of it all, community strife, local vigilantism, and taxi operator dissent.

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This is hardly the picture of Mandela’s ubuntu, because despite President Ramaphosa’s strongly worded speech on Friday night, we are in trouble…we need action not words and platitudes.

It is chilling to witness the same kind of “state-controlling” language used in the 1980s by the apartheid government, now being used by communities and taxi organisations, as well as some senior government officials, when speaking about alleged instigators and supposed third forces behind the looting.

Local media have given significant coverage to this “plot” but without requisite critical analysis or examining and reporting on the root causes of the conflict. So, to obtain unbiased, objective news related to the unrest, many South Africans turned to videocasts from international media houses such as the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN.

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These broadcasters carefully unpacked the chronology of events, examining the possible causes - rampant poverty and unemployment in the poorer parts of our country, and the imprisonment of former president Zuma (at 79 years of age), the unorthodox, traditionalist former president many communities still identify with.

Factionalism within the ANC has also contributed to our current mess and it is my considered belief that this has led to the ANC losing sight of the needs of the country and its people, putting its personal vested interests ahead of the collective.

Ethnic mobilisation

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By contrast to the support shown former president Zuma, President Ramaphosa’s deadpan demeanour and scripted approach appears to display little apparent empathy with the real plight of the mass population – poverty, unemployment, and limited education.

One of the biggest blunders of President Ramaphosa’s presidency to date and government’s response to the unrest and looting, was the statement that ethnic mobilisation is at play. Although since retracted, it’s a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

With a country that has a track record for pitting its people against one another, it has engendered a potential fission, which, if utilised by opportunistic forces, could plunge our country into ethnic conflict and further exacerbate an already tense situation.

A leadership crisis

The unrest has also highlighted a complete failure of leadership– from the top down. Our leaders don’t understand the context and root causes of the problems we have and how to address them to create peace, stability, economic growth, and investor confidence.

It is reflected in our leadership’s resolute disregard for their failure to deliver on their promises and reforms and exacerbated by a series of lockdowns, which has left our economy in tatters, no mention of which have been made in unrest-related speeches.

President Ramaphosa is a very likeable person and someone I know well. However, he has become somewhat separated and distant from communities and societies at large, relying on sometimes ill-informed advisors for guidance. His presidency is also marred with corruption such as the R32 billion PPE scandal as reported by the Special Investigations Unit, the controversial CR17 bank statements and more recently, an attempt to enforce on the country a multi-billion-rand floating power energy solution, Karpowership SA, which thankfully, was stopped in its tracks.

A statesman is required

We can never replace Madiba but we could do with a statesman right now. Someone who can open their heart to the people and understand their needs - gainful employment and income, adequate shelter, education, sustenance, and other necessities. Dignity, peace, and stability too.

We need someone who will bluntly and honestly address deficiencies with the aim of fixing them for good, not use them for political gain. A leader who will ensure that government officials and ministers deliver on their mandate. A statesman who will find and build coalitions with political parties, professionals, businesspeople, and civil society in an all-inclusive and non-factional way so that we can create a map that enables a better future for everyone.

I still have hope that this statesman is President Ramaphosa.

That said, the country now stands at a crossroads. The path chosen now, will either lead to more despair or follow the road of hope and repairing the inequities and injustices of the past and truly building that future that we all hoped for at the dawn of Democracy.

Choose wisely, for once the die is cast, there is no return.

* Dr Iqbal Survé is chairman of the Sekunjalo Group.