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SA in the 1980s was a land at the edge of the abyss. Our economy was stagnant, growing at below the level of population growth in seven out of the 10 years of the 1980s. Inflation ranged from a low of 11.5% in 1984 to a high of 18.6% in 1986.

In 1985 the government had to reschedule the payment of its foreign debt. Sanctions and disinvestment campaigns caused the disappearance of household names such as Ford, IBM and Barclays Bank.

Our politics was controlled by hate and fear. The country’s liberation movements were committed to the armed struggle; the government was as committed to brutal repression at home and undeclared wars abroad. Political violence was occurring in townships and rural areas across the land. Commentators at home and abroad predicted civil war.

Somehow, out of this cauldron of despair a new vision emerged. Many actors helped shape this. Armed struggle and sanctions abroad. At home the re-emergence of black unionism, the economic costs of apartheid, and the moral poverty and futility of its foundations created new voices and new centres of power.

With these there emerged in both the minds and hearts of South Africans a vision of a new and quite different SA. In workplaces, the halls of learning and communities, both urban and rural, our citizens affirmed that most central of ideas: that the country belonged to all who live in it, black and white. That the country had both the space and resources to offer all its citizens a life of decent opportunities. And crucially, that this new country could be achieved through a process of dialogue and negotiation.

The possibility of this new vision, and the new strategy to achieve it, was affirmed by the 18,618,065 citizens (95%) who voted in the April 1994 elections for the parties who supported our interim constitution and the institutional order it created.

Israelites’ complaints

Where are we now? What is our state almost 30 years later? This question is often answered by a sentiment that our country has lost its way. That the great dream of 1994 has failed. And even, in its extreme form, that things are now worse than they were before our transition from racist oppression to democracy.

This sentiment reflecting many unrealised hopes reminds us of the complaints of the Israelites in their 40-year journey in the desert that the food was better in Egypt.

In truth, this new SA is a much different and far better country. We live in a constitutional democracy. Competent and fair elections in which both winners and losers accept the judgment of voters happen every five years.

We are now citizens in a constitutional democracy with freedoms protected by a constitution, a bill of rights and laws interpreted and enforced by courts with courage and independence. Our constitution, the contract entered into by citizens that defines our country promotes equality and inclusion for all races, genders and sexual orientations.

Freedom of expression remains robust and has proved an effective curb on the abuse of power. In the economy, citizens and businesses operate in markets that, though regulated by law, are dynamic and agile.

In truth, though, we have clearly not yet established the promised land of our dreams, the dreams we carried in our hearts in the 1994 voting queues. A detailed analysis of what we have failed to achieve thus far is set out in the clearest of language in the 2011 National Development Plan.

An even bleaker account of the patterns of greed and criminality that have come close to destroying vital state institutions are set out in the six-volume Zondo state capture commission report.

Nonracialism commitment

This sad report card of failure has been actively enabled by the failure of those very political parties that sought power in 1994 in the name of a set of values so clearly set out in the preamble to the constitution and its bill of rights.

In election after election both major political parties have put the consolidation of racially defined supporters (blacks and ethnic minorities) at the heart of their campaigns. Their commitment to the nonracialism of the 1956 Freedom Charter and 1996 constitution has been confined to small print, advanced ambiguously or even ignored.

And in their use of the power they have obtained through the ballot box parties have often put political loyalty and patronage ahead of competence and integrity. This has deeply undermined the creation of capable, competent and clean government at national, provincial and local levels.

Nowhere has this abuse of elective office been more evident than in municipal governments, where elections have required political parties to form coalitions to govern together. These coalitions have been shaped almost exclusively by the divisions of the illegal fruits (looting) of public office and state agencies.

At this critical moment in our democratic journey we need to recall our history. The National Party, which governed the country from 1948 to 1994, had to accept that the country it governed was diverse and belonged to all. It was forced to negotiate with its most sworn enemy. Soon after 1994 this party, long the strongest voice of Afrikaner nationalism, had to die and merge with others, ultimately with the ANC.

The end of this party was in the face of the demand of citizens for governments that comprised only the competent, drawn from all parts of our nation, and with loyalty only to our constitution. How do we regain that 1994 moment? Fair and competitive elections that choose governments who competently realise the dreams and values we voted for in 1994 is our only road forward.

Next year’s national and provincial elections should be the most critical since 1991. These elections give power to citizens to reshape our political landscape, to reward those who uphold the visions and social contract of 1994 and punish those who undermine it.

The values that took 18-million South Africans into the voting booth in 1994 are clear in that:

  • SA belongs to all, black and white.
  • Freedom requires democracy with rights and responsibilities, and key institutions entrenched in a constitution.
  • To serve our people well government at all level needs people of competence and integrity.
  • The economic imperative of government at all levels is a sustained expansion of the economy and the progressive inclusion of all in economic activity.

It is on these values that voters should decide who should govern. Neither race nor past party loyalty is enough to return SA to the promise that was won in 1994. Parties that campaign for the 2024 election on a basis that dilutes, disguises or indeed denies these values can only take us closer to the abyss.

Should the 2024 elections at national and provincial level not produce outright majorities parties that share these core values should be able to govern together.

• Godsell was CEO of AngloGold Ashanti and Motlatsi founding president of the National Union of Mineworkers, both now retired.

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