Professor Barney Pityana says it is time for citizens to start redefining their relationship with their leaders, as South Africa currently “has no government”.
More than 100 people from civil society and ordinary citizens from all walks of life attended a National Foundations Dialogue Initiative (NFDI) event on Wednesday, to take part in a workshop of consensus-building and social cohesion.
Pityana told those attending the workshop in Cape Town that it was time to stop relying on the government for civic action. He mocked various leaders who had recently declared they want to be president.
“We constantly hear that so-and-so is now speaking at this event, speaking to people who are still poor and have no services,” he told those in attendance on Wednesday.
“We will get a minister from time to time acting as a talking head, but beyond that, we really have nothing.”
Pityana believed South Africa’s politics found itself in the current space because democracy was not working the way it should be.
The country “has a problem” both politically and socially.
“For our democracy to work, we need to wake up. Not only after five years when there are elections, but we need to be alert every day.”
It was up to citizens to keep their government accountable, responsive and open. Citizens needed to be active, join civic groups and be aware of what was going on in their towns, cities and provinces.
“In order for that to happen, we need to hear one another. We need to draw from the knowledge and intelligence that all of us have.”
Pityana said it was an early warning sign of a waning democracy when people found other illegal means of achieving nefarious ends.
“When every day I listen to the radio, I find out the chief justice’s offices were broken into, the NPA has had computers taken, I ask, ‘What is going on here?’ It’s as if everything is just falling apart.”
The country’s “problem” also went beyond just the Gupta family, which was a microcosm of a larger societal issue.
“I also don’t think we will have less of a problem after December 2017,” he said, referencing the African National Congress elective conference.
“I hear people say, ‘let’s wait until December for a difference. We really need to grab back the initiative.”
It was for that reason that the dialogues workshop was a great idea, to get South Africans talking.
The 100-strong audience would be split into groups throughout the course of the day to practise coming to consensus on societal issues.
“Solutions are not found by some clever researchers and academics. It is found when people come together to work together. Not as bishops and minister, and researchers [only]. Our job is to facilitate and make it possible for those solutions to grow.”
The initiative ultimately had no desire to babysit the country and citizens permanently. The point was to set the tone for a future democratic culture among ordinary citizens.
“We need to change our mind from the trust we gave our leaders in 1994, to one with an element of suspicion.
“Make our leaders work better when we suspect them a little bit more, that we do not trust what they say.”
South Africans had worked too hard in trusting their leaders, and he believed the time had come where they need to earn the trust, he finished.
The NFDI’s aim is to ensure earnest dialogue and consensus-building. It is a joint initiative comprising nine foundations, including the Thabo Mbeki Foundations, Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation and FW de Klerk Foundation.
Pityana is programme adviser to the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.