Picture: GCIS
Picture: GCIS

SA became the darling of the world when Nelson Mandela overcame the odds and led a national movement of reconciliation in what had become, under apartheid, a pariah state.

A quarter of a century later, we witnessed the ascension to power of the man who stood beside Madiba when he emerged from prison and said, “I stand before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people”.

The newly elected President of the Republic, Cyril Ramaphosa, now has the mammoth task of righting the national ship in time, before a the coalescing of economic stagnation, fiscal and institutional decay and social unrest overrun the once mythical promise of a Rainbow Nation.

If one casts ones mind back to the heyday of SA’s democratic transition, one can faintly hear the echoes of former president Thabo Mbeki’s speech, “I am an African”.

SA today must face the unfinished, unsettled business of the so-called negotiated settlement

“A human presence among all these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African!”

With those words Mbeki affirmed by name; the Khoi and the San, the migrants who left Europe to find a new home, the Malay slaves who came from the East, the generations and patriots of Hintsa, Sekhukhune and of Cetshwayo and Mphephu, Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane, migrants from Isandlwana to Khartoum, Ethiopians and the Ashanti of Ghana, the Berbers of the desert and the Boer and the Bahamas, and those who were transported from India and China.

These, he claimed in poetic imagery, to be the collective embodiment of a “magnificent product”, a new nation, evoking a spirit of togetherness, of hope and of pride.

Democracy was and is SA’s most remarkable achievement, as the recent national elections showed once more. But democracy alone, without meaningful socio-economic transformation for the masses of poor and unemployed South Africans, is a hollow and temporary illusion.

SA today must face the unfinished, unsettled business of the so-called negotiated settlement. If we fail, we will not only further lose our luster on the international stage, but we will lose our way.

It is noteworthy that the two parties that gained the most support in the recent elections were the EFF and the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). These two polar parties now represent the further most left-wing and right-wing political movements in the country.

While there is much debate about whether the EFF is indeed left-wing, their essential political character rather resembling fascistic right-wing tendencies, they do espouse an outdated but symbolically powerful notion of leftist statism – a proto-Marxism that dreams of class-based revolution. The FF+ comparatively, steeped in Afrikaner identity-politics, represents a conservative reactionary movement, caught in the cul-de-sac of a romantic delusion, the continuation of quasi-socialist Afrikaner nationalism – a system under which a small white minority could progress on islands of privilege amid a sea of black despair.

Promise of reconciliation

What president Mbeki understood, but he himself failed to adequately address, is that the promise of reconciliation, the lure of liberty, and the spirit of togetherness, grows like a tree with roots reaching down into the substantive material questions of wealth versus poverty, land versus landlessness and dignity versus depravity.

This caused the then president, in the same speech, to diagnose our national toleration as follows: “Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.”

The unfinished business of the negotiated settlement is the resettlement of the patterns of material affluence, not in a binary zero-sum game of winners and losers, but in a symbiotic race to the top of national progress.

The architects of our constitution dreamed of a national compact. This compact was not to be a stale agreement to preserve the status quo, as the FF+ imagine. Nor a violent subversion of the privileges amassed by some in favor of others. No, the members of the Constitutional Committee, such as the chairperson, Ramaphosa himself, and the likes of Ginwala, Moosa, Pandor and Mulder, had in mind a dynamic compact for a better future.

This was to be a future wherein South African citizens could feel at home, on the land and in the economy. One where national symbols and national songs were co-owned and held in shared celebration. This was to be a daydream with actions attached, taking us step by step towards a shiny vision of equality, of dignity and of means.

Even then president Mbeki warned of our frailty in this task, saying, “together with the best in the world, we too are prone to pettiness, petulance, selfishness and short-sightedness.”

Perhaps the president was channeling a prophetic word or perhaps he was parenting a juvenile nation?

From where I stand, we momentarily forgot where we have come from and lost the sense of our preferred future. Our liberation leaders, distracted by access to money through power, mirrored our business leaders, distracted by better returns through access to global markets, collectively taking their eyes off the national ball. Civil society, once a bastion of democratic effervescence lost its cause, and in the process lost its voice.

Pursuit of survival

Thankfully, SA retains an innate resilience in all our systems, centered on a dogged endurance developed in the pursuit of survival. This national toughness will likely tide us over until the likes of Eskom is stable, the National Prosecuting Authority once again functional and the new cabinet firmly ensconced in the apparatus of government. But toughness alone is not a remedy for our malaise. We need a step-change.

As a futurist and strategist I can foresee a path to such a plane of higher national performance. Such a change is akin to Bafana Bafana undergoing a radical cultural change and featuring among the gods of football at the top of their game. While hard to imagine, it is possible that the players in the team find themselves and one another and begin to play for their country, as one.

Practically speaking, each and every leader and manager of each of SA’s schools, clinics, businesses, municipalities and institutions would have to raise their game. We would have to play to win, not in narrow terms of internal competition, but in national terms – SA competing against our former self.

The signs are there that unless we now deal with the unfinished business in our nation, our future will be marked by the instability arising from the short-sightedness to which we seem to be prone.

• Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and writes in his personal capacity.