Back in the comparatively halcyon days of Codesa, when Buffalo Ramaphosa still had legitimate reason to smile, we thought long and hard about how we want to live. We produced a truly great constitution, but it is often forgotten that during that conversation, in the midst of the horse trading, a model akin to the Swiss canton system was also proposed. Leon Louw and Frances Kendall wrote a informative book about the political and economic benefits of local autonomy and policies designed to maximize individual liberty.
This idea was seen as a Balkanisation proposal, and contributed to the failure of the second plenary session of Codesa in 1992 – the mere presence of the then Nationalist government had tainted this suggestion as an extension of the homelands policy, and it was, understandably, roundly rejected. Those were heady days. I remember sitting speechless at a cricket match as an energetic, roaring mexican wave thundered around the packed stadium. We were elated, and wanted to shout! We were disappointingly innocent, then.
Two decades later, as the swarm of locusts emitted from the ANC settle into the green pastures of the public purse, we find the country in turmoil precisely because a strong central government has dismally failed its citizens. The standard script for liberation movements has run its course – we are steeped in epidemic nepotism, humiliating corruption, and widespread violence once again. Every single crucial social and political structure has been all but destroyed. The judiciary, the rule of law, the public protector and the constitution are under attack, the police force is deeply disgraced, our schooling is amongst the worst in the world and our hospitals are from Hades. The land restitution we promised ourselves during the constitution-making process – as a precondition for the entrenchment of property rights in the new democracy, no less – has come to naught.
Clearly, we need to think again about how we want to live, and how to bring about decent lives for us all.
But this is already happening – we turn out to have an incredibly robust and impressive civil society. Individuals, companies and organisations are acting for the common good everywhere, protecting the judiciary, supporting schools, policing communities, addressing land issues, steadily uncovering and prosecuting corruption, with a dignified press doing a first-rate job.
We have seen Hugh Glenister take on the full tornado of state power, with his own money, to ensure independence for our corruption fighting units. And finally, after more than 4 years of struggle, with assistance from the Helen Suzman Foundation, he won.
While the vineyards burned in the Cape, models for sharing land with the original owners already existed – witness the case of Solms Delta in Franschoek, where landowners put their farms up as collateral for the purchase of an adjacent farm by the workers. Solms asks, “why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Why, indeed. A seed has clearly been sown. May it show verdant growth.
At a Cape Town TED talk event, I came across Louise Van Rhyn, who is co-opting senior managers from the business community to partner with our battered and depressed school principals, bringing new life to our broken schools. This kind of community action needs to grow, if we are to grow.
Recently, our young people have (finally) risen from their apathetic stupor, and we no longer have to lament a generation of middle-class mall puppies. They have found a voice, and serious issues to address. For me, this means that we are now equipped for our second transition.
At every flashpoint, South Africans are getting their hands out of their sleeves. People and organisations like these define the potency of a society giving birth to a working democracy. This is clearly a slow and tortuous process, much more onerous than many of us had imagined, but the country is unstoppably at work, even if its government is not. From these small tributaries of effort flows a country-wide river of hope and toil, which no organisation can stop, even with a monopoly on violence and the ability to tax. Our determination is grim, but endless.
All of this despite government. There are many, many other examples, and I am filled with hope.
The promise of our people is ignited locally, sourced from the robust hearts and minds of an extraordinary citizenry and from companies and NGOs who see the problems in their area, and act day by day to not only keep hope alive, but also to deliver real impact on the ground. Is the activity of citizens not producing a training school for South Africans to turn away from centrist hopes, and run their lives locally? Are we perhaps seeing a new route, growing organically in our communities, to the kind of structures pointed out by Louw and Kendall in 1986?
It may be time, then, to revisit the basic idea of greater direct funding and autonomy of local communities, not blindly copying, but keeping in mind, and learning from the relatively accessible lessons from the Swiss cantons. A sound start would be to rethink our electoral system, which alienates communities from their representatives, perpetuates cynical manipulation of the franchise, and offers no possibility of recall or timely accountability. How do we gain and entrench the right to speak and act between elections? How do we oppose central government interference in local matters? Other than the expensive mercy of the highest courts, we currently have no such mechanisms.
We have to accept the possibility that as our democracy emerges from its infancy, we may well have to consider amendments to the constitution, mindful of its precious foundational and protective nature. One does not lightly tinker with something so important, and it may be difficult to do, but civil society may have to prioritise this, before the ANC does.
And so, true to our robust and imaginative nature, if new political parties are in the wings, they will come not only from the socialist labour block. It is likely to be something entirely different, and it could just be something which further empowers the obvious energy, strength and beauty of South African civil society. It is long overdue.
If we don’t give up, and continue to oppose with all our might the voracious feeding on the carcass of our 1994 hopes, we might again, all grown up and with eyes wide open this time, hear the sturdy thud of one collective heart.