08/05/2017 15:07 SAST | Updated 08/05/2017 15:07 SAST

Igniting A National Dialogue: Can It Work?

Friday's event, which brought three former heads of state together to discuss SA's crisis, is being heralded an important return to dialogue as a means to effect change.

South African former Presidents Frederik de Klerk (L), Kgalema Motlanthe (C) and Thabo Mbeki look on during the National Foundations Dialogue initiative on May 5, 2017 in Johannesburg.


To say South Africa has had a rough start to 2017 would be an understatement.

Questionable decisions from our president have led to the country's economy deteriorating into junk status while cases of corruption and fraud in government come ever to the forefront. These actions have charged what can only be described as a new wave of public animosity towards the state with mass gatherings recently sprouting up countrywide.

Political activism is rife, arguably more so now than in the past 20 years -- and the calls for change are coming in different shapes and sizes, from groups and sectors one may not have previously expected. Take Friday's National Foundations Dialogue Initiative for example, where three former heads of state sat to discuss the political and socio-economic atmosphere in the country. It was the first of many dialogues surrounding the topic to come.

While South Africans are accustomed to a more hands-on, physical form of activism, going back to dialogue may be an effective tool for change. Or is it?

Engaging in national dialogue is not a new methodology. Throughout the world and in South Africa, this method of public conversation has dealt with entrenched and extended conflict through constitutional change and reform by using open dialogue as a tool for political transformation.

There has been a cornucopia of public consultations and political dialogues in countries like Egypt, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan and Yemen. South Africa also had its fair share pre-democracy.

'Worsening crisis'
Friday's event was seismic in its own way: a coalition of eight of the country's most notable foundations who hold the names, and therein the public influence, of some of South Africa's most iconic liberators.

At the event, former president Thabo Mbeki said it was impossible for anybody in South Africa to publicly argue against the "reality of national sickness" in politics, economy and in the context of social and national cohesion.

"After serious reflection, proceeding from their different positions, our National Foundations have concluded that our country is immersed in a general and worsening crisis which impacts and will continue to impact negatively on our country and the rest of our continent," Mbeki said.

Mbeki's statement highlights perfectly why South Africans need to talk.

Keys to success
Many dialogue initiatives, however, do not deliver as intended. The obvious risk in South Africa is essentially within the factions of the ruling party. No speaker on Friday disputed that the ANC should remain in control of the country but the anti-Zuma sentiment was a strong undercurrent to much of what was said.

Dialogues like this will always run the risk of being captured or even fractured by individuals pushing their own political agenda before they achieve any real result.

Political neutrality and a sustained credibility will therefore be the keys to success.

But most importantly, the initiative must display inclusion.

Although Friday's dialogue was convened by former political big wigs (arguably to draw media attention to the event), other key interest groups must participate so the views of South Africa's mixed demographic can be included.

If not, the dialogue's resolutions will be skewed.

Does Zuma even care?
But will this all be for nothing in the face of the Zuma regime?

Zuma's recent cabinet reshuffle saw his most staunch supporters rewarded for their unwavering backing -- a move which arguably entrenches the president's political survival into 2019. With those ministers under his belt, nothing seems to phase him.

Hundreds of thousands of people took the streets across the country last month, all calling for Zuma's head. Ideological coalitions between opposition parties, civil society organisations and trade unions now pushing a unified agenda have also added to the mounting pressure.

Yet, the president seemed undeterred.

The National Foundations Dialogue Initiative may not directly lead to the radical change that they say the country needs, but it will certainly be part of the process that evoked that change -- when it eventually happens.