30 years on, unity in diversity is in trouble

A society so bountiful and varied that it has nourished and inspired its people with values of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”, says the writer. Picture: Independent Newspapers Archive

A society so bountiful and varied that it has nourished and inspired its people with values of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”, says the writer. Picture: Independent Newspapers Archive

Published Apr 27, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

Now is the time to reimagine our open and democratic society that is 30 years old and vibrant with the aspirations expressed in the Constitution to “recognise the injustices of our past, honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land, respect those who have worked to build and develop our country, and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”.

Not too close to completely healing “the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”, and not too far from finishing laying “the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law”.

Tilted on its axis to improve the “quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person” and striving daily to “build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations”.

A society so bountiful and varied that it has nourished and inspired its people with values of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”.

Such is an image of South Africa today, our only home inhabited by all as citizens of a rainbow nation. And in that stunning array of life is what many today call a thriving unity in our diversity and solidification of a cornerstone of our democracy because countless ways of being proud citizens have evolved and are evolving.

Disappointingly, the unity in our diversity, a cornerstone of democracy, is in trouble.

First, some good news: Decolonisation events worldwide tended to be accompanied by murder, torture and brutal repression rather than drumbeats and energising folk songs.

In South Africa, 30 years ago this month, in 1994, citizens of all races braved all the odds to vote in the first non-racial elections and ushered in a new Constitution that became the supreme law of the republic.

It made law or conduct inconsistent with it invalid and instructed the state to fulfil the obligations imposed by it – something unprecedented.

South Africa’s negotiated political transition was a glorious exception to this dismal rule.

Written with diversity in mind and to strengthen the cornerstones of democracy, it obliges the state to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Constitution.

It further grants the state – and this is important – the authority to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of the rights meant to better the people’s lives. This was monumental.

Significant anniversaries inevitably serve as occasions for state-of-the-nation-style reflection. Since 1994, we could vote only for political parties to represent us in national and provincial legislatures. This time round, on May 29, independent candidates will contest the national and provincial elections for the first time alongside political parties and hold public office as independent representatives. This is also monumental.

After being constrained by cadre deployments in the government for all these years, we have proclaimed that our democracy need not exclusively hinge on party affiliation – it must even flourish outside political parties.

Many have observed that political life in democratic South Africa has seldom been polite, orderly and restrained. It has always been loud, rowdy and fractious. That is no bad thing. Within the boundaries the Constitution sets, it is suitable for democracy, social life and individuals to permit as much open and vigorous discussion of public affairs as possible.

For the first two decades of our democracy, we assumed that the grim experience of uncaring and unaccountable apartheid government divide-and-rule policies had inoculated South Africa’s politics against divisiveness, lawlessness, corruption and maladministration.

However, like other countries worldwide that suffer from selfish and incompetent leadership, the reach of modern corruption and populism no longer constrains the dark memories of the past.

This brings us to the bad news: 30 years on, we will sing victory anthems again from April 27 at anniversary celebrations. But the lack of competent leadership at different levels of society to expand our horizons rather than narrow them will cast a shadow over proceedings and has contributed significantly to the deterioration of our living standards, the disintegration of societal values, the stunting of our social cohesion, moral degeneration and a general reversal of several gains achieved initially in our democracy.

The values of a caring, accountable and responsive government need asserting and defending once again.

South Africa’s Human Development Index reflects a severe decline, with poor performance in education and health and several other areas estimated to be at least five-fold lower than pre-2010 levels.

“We are the people,” say T-shirts worn by increasing numbers nationwide who know the significance of their history and their entitlement to human rights. They demand the return of power to the people, away from political parties that have been too happy to collect votes every five years and disappear into obscurity without providing feedback and accountability.

Social movements continue to expose citizens’ discontent with stagnating socio-economic conditions. The chronic unemployment, deepening poverty and widening inequality have intensified citizens’ sense of economic and political resentment, triggered mainly by multiple scandals of corruption, maladministration and cronyism that serve as red warning lights.

While the Constitutional Court once noted back in 2002 that between elections, “voters have no control over the conduct of their representatives” as they cannot “dictate to them how they must vote in Parliament, nor do they have any legal right to insist that they conduct themselves or refrain from conducting themselves in a particular manner”, the balance of power has since changed.

Back then, chillingly, the court underlined that “the fact that political representatives may act inconsistently with their mandates is a risk in all electoral systems”. However, while such legal interpretations are admirable in adjudicating disputes, the blowing political winds have ensured that politicians acting inconsistently with their mandates rarely lasted long.

The political shift unfolded notwithstanding the contemporary problems imposed upon us by some political parties that have become so controversial that they are also hiding information about their funding sources, connected to pervasive private donor influence over government policies and legislation – and many worry the unwelcome influence will continue into the next administration.

Ominously, they seek to amend the hard-fought-for legislation on the declaration of donations to loosen its checks and balances. They also want to pass new legislation to allow political parties to receive more state money and escape accountability by keeping the funding under wraps.

Why the controversy? Follow the money, mainly campaign donations to lawmakers from wealthy individuals and industry groups (logging, mining, oil, coal and gas) that marginalise community voices and oppose accountable and open government, which they say stifle economic growth and property rights.

If a right brings about insecurity in the well-being of the people, it is not a right. It is a wrong. That is the whole point of our Constitution: to create a new moral imperative – be a brake on the big wheel that tramples human rights.

How do we turn things around? We can start with every citizen voting in the elections for credible candidates and holding public representatives accountable.

Furthermore, we can invest in parenting and empowering our children by teaching them about their civic duties, human rights and responsibilities to become active citizens. We can tell them stories about patriotism and the benefits of active citizenship.

The Constitutional Court and public awareness groups have empowered us with the knowledge that public participation by active citizens in legislative processes “enhances the civic dignity of those who participate” by enabling their voices to be heard and considered. It promotes “a spirit of democratic and pluralistic accommodation” to produce laws that are likely widely accepted and effective in practice. It strengthens the legitimacy of legislation in the eyes of the people.

Importantly, its open and public character counterweigh “secret lobbying and influence-peddling”. Participatory democracy is fundamental to those “who are relatively disempowered” in a country like ours where disparities of wealth and influence exist.

Let us strive further to uphold the values of human dignity, equality and human rights and freedoms. The aspirations of our nation set out in the Constitution have never been more valuable. Let this be our guiding principle for the next 30 years and beyond.

* Nyembezi is a researcher, policy analyst and human rights activist

Cape Times