Melanie Veness: PCB CEO
Normally I come back from the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) National Council Meeting feeling inspired, but I must admit that I left last weeks’ meeting feeling rather somber.
It wasn’t the company that caused me to feel this way, rather the content of the SAIIA National Chairman, Mr Fred T Phaswana’s, annual address.
Phaswana is usually so positive, that what he had to say, while not unexpected, was all the harsher for him having said it.
He started by saying that 2016 marks 20 years since the adoption of our democratic constitution and he reminded us that its adoption was ushered in by a rousing speech of then deputy president Thabo Mbeki’s, that embraced all the peoples of South Africa “in its moving definition of ‘I am an African’, and equally reminded us of our common humanity and the better angels of our nature that moved us to overcome human foibles and rise to construct a constitution that recognized the individual dignity of all human beings”.
He went on to say that of course the constitution could not, by its simple adoption, eradicate 300 years of oppression or wipe out poverty and societal injustices overnight, but, he pointed out, that it did lay the foundation of a new democratic state based on the rule of law, where individual dignity is respected, where arbitrary decisions are no longer the order of the day, and that envisioned a citizenry with self-esteem, and respect for others and their differences.
He said that we’ve come a long way since then, but that more recent efforts have been characterized by “complacency, discordance and even arrogance”, that “corruption and elite capture of the state have seeped into the body politic” and that“ institutional actions to hold actors accountable are berated and belittled for revealing a hidden political, racist, factionalist agenda, rather than asserting constitutionalism”.
The position, for example, that we are adopting with respect to the International Criminal Court, according to the Chairman, erodes years of progress on one of the very real political challenges of our time – reducing the impunity of leaders. And, there is no shortage of examples of the consequences of leaders’ impunity – untold violence and conflict.
He further said that “chronic unemployment and an education sector still mired in mediocrity condemn our youth to a life of no tomorrow”. “Racism, already simmering under the surface, becomes the easy vent; demagoguery, the refuge of the rash; and xenophobia, the language of the marginalized”.
This, he said, is what the public conversation has descended to. What a sad indictment on all of us.
According to Phaswana: “we have entered the winter of our discontent”.
He went on to say that we ignore at our peril the fact that the dignity of the individual cannot be separated from one’s material well-being.
And what’s more, the current state of affairs provides fertile ground for the rise of populism. True leadership, according to Phaswana, lies in making the hard calls (especially during an election year), not deferring to interminable commissions or resorting to populism that divides society, rather than uniting it.
He says that our country is crying out for leadership that rises above factionalism, that recommits to our founding document and that takes quick and appropriate action. We need a unifying narrative starting at the top. Only in this way can we reclaim the confidence of our citizenry and the international community, and our integrity in our international engagements.
We’re standing on the cusp and transformation is possible, if we all pull together and work in the best interests of the most vulnerable sections of our population.
It is possible, according to Phaswana, if we recommit to the high ideals, values and norms in which society ought to be anchored, which are good governance, democracy and human rights.
All I can say, is that what Fred said, is right.