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Mcebisi Jonas: The Betrayal Of The Promise

"If we fail to understand the significance of what we are facing -- our hard won democracy will become something that we talk about; lost in our lifetime."

24/04/2017 10:49 SAST | Updated 24/04/2017 11:58 SAST
Waldo Swiegers/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images

Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas over the weekend addressed hundreds of ANC members in Uitenhage, Port Elizabeth, where the South African Communist Party held a Chris Hani memorial lecture. This is his full speech.

Over the last few months the South African Communist Party has demonstrated exactly what the party should be. You have rekindled for us that vision of a party that speaks against evil. You have rekindled in our minds that party that speaks against the oppression and exploitation of men by men. You have brought to the centre of the national debate the importance of defending our democracy. Let me salute you for that work.

Today my focus today is going to be: what is the political moment? There is an increasing sense that most of us are either blind to where we are as a country, or are refusing to acknowledge where we are. I always say that the ANC is where it is today because it was led by visionaries – people who saw ahead of time; people who could analyse where we were; people who could devise tactics to respond to the challenges we faced; people who were not denialists – not people who say that if people are marching, they say they are racists; that they are the minority.

Remember that during apartheid when many of us took to the streets against the system, the government said to us that we were influenced by Russia, by the West, etcetera. They treated us as if we couldn't think; couldn't see what was happening. Today we hear the same rhetoric. To say that these marches are inspired by imperialists is to deny that it is the people of South Africa, it is the nation, that is in distress, it is the nation that is angry. It would be fatal for us to overlook the importance of the political moment.

The dawn of democracy in 1994 delivered a promise that united South Africa. Nelson Mandela's inauguration on 10 May 1994 expressed this promise in the clearest terms. Speaking on behalf of the democratically elected ANC-led Government, he promised: "... to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination... [to] build [a] society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."

The weight of this history, of this promise, now rests heavily on our shoulders. Until recently, we might have read and dismissed yet another story about corruption; glanced over yet another headline about a burning community library; added yet another name to the long list of struggling state-owned companies. But the critical juncture that we have now reached is such that if we continue ignoring these signs, if we fail to understand the significance of what we are facing - we must accept that our hard won democracy will become something that we talk about; lost in our lifetime. That's the danger we face.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, we said that we must ensure that progressively we destroy the apartheid era bureaucracy and that we build a capable state to drive forward the agenda of liberating our people and deepening development in our country. Unsurprisingly, transforming these institutions into vehicles for service delivery and development became a major challenge, but against odds, we have built the constitutional foundations of our democracy and resilient economic institutions.

For several years now a critique of South Africa's transition to democracy has been developing, which has focused on the profound continuities between the Apartheid and the post-Apartheid economies.

Our institutions of law and order extend fully across our territory, we built a robust revenue system and broadly stable public service delivery capabilities upon which our public finances rest. We have a free and critical media, a strong judiciary, open trade and protected property rights. We also have strong and diversified institutions of worker representation and civil rights protection.

Therefore the integrity of what we have achieved – of what countless of our comrades fought for, dedicated their lives, many losing their lives, others leaving their families behind - is even more galling when one begins to unpack the current conjecture of what is commonly called "state capture"; more specifically the robbery of the South African state by private interests, and in particular one family.

For several years now a critique of South Africa's transition to democracy has been developing, which has focused on the profound continuities between the Apartheid and the post-Apartheid economies: glaring inequality that still largely coincides with our country's racial profile – linked in part to the low-growth, high-inequality trap that I have written and spoken about before.

What is new about this critique is that it increasingly repudiates South Africa's constitutional settlement as an obstacle to what has commonly been termed as "radical economic transformation". In contrast, for those progressive forces that negotiated the democratic break-through, and for the many people that moved into government after 1994, the constitution was deemed a framework through which transformation could be achieved.

This difference in how one relates to the transition and the institutions that came out of it can now be associated with two different ways of doing politics. The first operates within the confines of the constitution and is invested in institution building to programmatically achieve progressive policy outcomes.

More recently however, especially since Polokwane, a second way of doing politics has emerged that based on profound mistrust of the formal "rules of the game", whether of the constitution or of government. This politics claims to speak for "ordinary people", those who are not educated, who don't speak English well, who live in shacks or small towns and rural areas and who are excluded by the economy and the formal Institutions of the state.

When we talk about Radical Economic Transformation, we are not talking about Radical Economic Transformation for a family – we are talked about RET for millions of South Africans. That should be our agenda.

On its terms, and in order to change this situation, the existing rules must be interrupted and the rules of the game subverted and changed. There is no doubt that in the institutional instability that this politics creates, corruption and criminality has been able to thrive. The current politics has two defining characteristics:

  • it comes at the expense of the constitution and South Africa's democratic order
  • it serves to fundamentally weaken and even collapse key state institutions.

To quote the Public Affairs Research Institute, which has written extensively on the subject: "What all these intrigues have in common is that they centre on reducing the autonomy of state institutions and/or displacing those who currently control them in favour of a new configuration of forces. This politics of purge and displacement has wracked the law and order departments (the police, the directorate for specialised crimes (the "Hawks"), the National Prosecutions Authority, the South African Revenue Services (SARS) and some of the state-owned enterprises, most recently Denel, a state arms company. In a context where state power is seen to be personal and in some cases has become so, these efforts are seen as legitimate attempts to break the hold of existing groups and alliances to make way for new interests."

This is not corruption – indeed we overlook a fundamental threat to our egalitarian project if we think that we are only dealing with corruption. We are facing a coup, via the very capture of our state. Our country is being stolen before our own eyes. This is not to deny that corruption is widespread at all levels and therefore undermines development, but we must differentiate the two. South Africa faces a much greater threat in the sense that "state capture" occurs when "the rule-making process itself is 'captured'". The pernicious nature of this threat goes to the fundamental difference between corruption and state capture, which is that for the latter, many of its activities may be legal, hiding the gradual, well-organised, but often invisible malignancy of its ultimate impact.

It has been too easy for us to see each new example of state capture as a separate event, to deny the connection between them. We have failed to join the dots. A common factor among political revolutions, or change, that successfully pave the way for more inclusive institutions – breaking from extractive regimes – is that they succeed in empowering a fairly broad cross-section of society. When we talk about Radical Economic Transformation, we are not talking about Radical Economic Transformation for a family – we are talked about RET for millions of South Africans. That should be our agenda.

In a recent article, Rob Wijnberg, founder of De Correspondent, reminded us of the alternative, if a narrow elite is allowed to thrive: "Dismantling a government delivers [several] overarching advantages for a kleptocratic autocracy – the terms for a society in which state power is appropriated for the self-enrichment of an authoritarian leader and his inner circle: [one of these is], the availability of the facts relied on by scientists, journalists and other professionals working on behalf of the public will decrease. Government institutions not only carry out policy, they also produce much of the research that it's based on. Shutting them down will clear a path for flooding the public domain with "alternative facts" – a proven formula for autocratic regimes the world over." This is why today we have this existence of fake news.

I want to end by saying that we have got to build a popular front. We have got to build a popular front against state capture; we must build a popular front against low growth and high inequality; we must build a popular front against all those things that are deliberately positioned to confuse our people. We must ensure that our people are guided by facts at all times. If there is any memory to give for Chris Hani and all our comrades who died for our struggle, it is going to be to recapture our democracy and direct it to the benefit of the millions.