When I saw three former presidents sharing a stage on Friday I felt a renewed sense of hope for South Africa. The National Dialogue initiative is an idea whose time has come. There is a need to deepen dialogue across all sectors of our society – the same spirit of dialogue that brought our country back from the brink of disaster ahead of the 1994 national elections. There is no gainsaying that all three presidents have a lot to answer to about their various roles in the state of the nation that we find ourselves in. De Klerk can be a lot more candid and humble about his acts of commissions and omissions in the bloodbath that preceded the 1994 settlement.
Mbeki can be a lot more candid and less cagey about his complicity in the HIV/Aids disaster that was as a result of denialism, and Motlanthe can be a lot more honest about his complicity in the disastrous inertia that happened when he pursued the JZ agenda... Both Motlanthe and Mbeki with their combined actions gave us the disastrous Zuma Presidency – something this country did not deserve. So no one is claiming that these statesmen are suddenly perfect but we have to commend them for taking leadership on a crucial issue of building bridges across society at a time when the ruling party is in deep crisis and failing daily to build a national democratic society that can make freedom meaningful.
I realised that no one was seriously asking why the current president was not part of this dialogue. He should be included in it as part of stopping the culture of "speaking in parables" when in the process of understanding what has gone wrong with our society. If the initiative is to achieve its set objectives of listening to the people it should surely also listen to those who don't see anything wrong with the current leadership of President Zuma. It must interrogate the moral collapse that has engulfed the ruling party and seek the counsel of its veterans whose voices have fallen on deaf ears over the years.
An aside: the Economic Freedom Fighters have also questioned why a dialogue of this nature included a former Apartheid leader like De Klerk, they argue that De Klerk presided over the deaths of many and so should not be sharing a stage with leaders of our liberation. These youngsters must have missed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chapter of our history. They need to read some newspaper clips about what Mandela said about De Klerk and remind themselves why the ANC agreed to a government of national unity after 1994. On that point, they may also understand why we have a national anthem that sounds the way it does. I don't have enough space here for a history lesson.
We have a country to build away from slogans and banal pronouncements. The National Dialogue must interrogate why the economic freedom project has failed and why so many have not enjoyed the freedom dividend. It must quiz leaders of our people who have been in charge since 1994 about their roles in the stagnation of the economic freedom project. It must cause the current leadership that is hard at hearing to listen to the voices of the people and act on what they hear. Its path to failure will be if it became an elite project of the haves talking amongst themselves about the needs of the have nots. It cannot be a conversation amongst the economically oppressed only while those that continue to control the economy are treated with kid gloves.
It has to ask the hard questions to everyone about issues such as the deprivation of land, the growing inequality in our society and the total collapse of our moral compass. This way the solutions it seeks to cultivate can give each of us something we must reflect on about our role in building this great nation. In order for this to happen we must swiftly go past the red herrings and side shows and get this nation talking and rising up to act against all the demons that are making the shine of our nation dim.