Thuli Madonsela. Picture: REUTERS
Thuli Madonsela. Picture: REUTERS

We have not heard the last of Thuli Madonsela. A month ago, the former public protector climbed Kilimanjaro, and two weeks ago she convened a remarkable summit at Stellenbosch University with about 300 distinguished personalities from all over the country. Because President Cyril Ramaphosa was in Japan, his speech was delivered by minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu.

The occasion was designed for the launch of the “M Plan for Social Justice”, which is Madonsela’s current preoccupation. She argues that in 1994 SA did not have such a social plan, even though the constitution has a number of clauses dealing with health, housing and other socioeconomic rights. Mthembu agreed that there was no pact on these issues at the time and no consensus.

What followed these formal speeches was an extraordinary panel of personalities representing a wide range of interest groups from top business to academia, with unexpected individuals thrown in. I expected total discord and anticipated complete disagreement on such critical issues as employment, human rights and the rest. After all, the country is now in serious political turmoil on every major issue, so how could a panel as diverse as this come to any kind of mutual understanding? Especially as our social problems are dire, as so many subsequent speakers and even Mthembu emphasised.

So how could Madonsela, who set the scene, have expected anything but an intense wrangle from this opening panel? Let me give the names to indicate why I expected total discord: Business Leadership SA CEO Busisiwe Mavuso, JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King, former president FW de Klerk, University of Stellenbosch professor Jonathan Jansen, former statistician general Pali Lehohla, and myself, a former ANC MP.

All the panellists spoke with much passion about the numerous problems facing the country and acknowledged serious tensions gripping our people. All supported the M Plan while acknowledging the difficulty of implementation. My view that we are in a kind of national stalemate seemed to find favour. I argued that in our national politics, in economic decision-making, in so many areas of public policy, we seem to be stuck in a kind of paralysis.

I argued that this condition goes back to 1994 when the liberation movement and white power signed up to a non-aggression pact that did not include the kind of plan that would transform the socioeconomic profile of the country. Hence there are many continuities from the legacy of apartheid that have not been addressed. To overcome this would take more than an appeal to morality and good citizenship. The persisting conflicting interests have to be identified and mediated.

In a remarkable series of presentations, each panellist approached the topic from their own perspective. The two representatives of big business were highly critical of the indecisiveness of the government in dealing with the severe problems in state-owned enterprises and the public service, but were equally forceful in their commitment to social transformation. De Klerk first read a formal statement but then opened up with an emotional apology for apartheid and an affirmation that having white skin was not a licence for special treatment. He is in complete support of non-racialism and a fair deal for all.

Lehohla gave numerous examples of failed social policy and Jansen talked about the deficiencies of our education system. Contributions from the floor generally referred to levels of distrust in the government, lack of confidence in political parties and a strong sense that civil society organisations have a vital role in improving the material socioeconomic conditions of our people.

A number of speakers spoke with much passion on how poverty is the outcome of unemployment and inevitably has led to a rise in crime, corruption and low growth. One speaker contrasted the conditions in the suburbs and the townships, which highlight the continuing divides everywhere. My view was that even as we talk about a new plan, we need to pay a great deal of attention to the often subtle continuities in various forms that perpetuate the injustices and prejudicial conduct of apartheid.

On the face of it, this was just one more conference bemoaning the poor condition in which the majority of our people live. We have heard much of this many times. What was different this time was the consensus that emerged in discussion in the most diverse of panels. Were these just fine sentiments suited to the occasion? I am enough of a sceptic to believe that not every top business tycoon would support Mavuso’s passionate statement on social transformation or that brokers in New York are as interested in Newton King’s critique of how financial markets work.

The point is that when leading personalities take their formal mantles off and meet in an informal setting and in a good social cause, they speak to the truth and actually find one another, something that surprises them all. Clearly this was a summit with a difference.

• Prof Turok, a former ANC MP, is director of the Institute for African Alternatives and editor of New Agenda.