Professor Ben Turok;
Professor Thuli Madonsela,
Comrade Pallo Jordan,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for the kind invitation to deliver opening remarks on the occasion of this public meeting.
Before I delve into the heart of my contribution, I wish to first honour the location that we find ourselves in today: the Ashley Kriel Hall in Community House, as its significance has great bearing on the way that we conceive of prospectives for a better South Africa
Ashley Kriel, as many of you are aware, was a young anti-apartheid activist, whose life was abruptly extinguished by the system of apartheid and those charged with doing its bidding. Since he was fatally shot on the 9th of July 1987 at the tender age of just 20-years-old in a presumed safe house in Hazendal, Athlone – his family has yet to receive the justice, closure and peace that they require to move forward. This echoes the experience of many families across the country who have yet to find peace in the post-apartheid climate.
It is meaningful therefore that we gather here and honour comrades like Kriel, who were taken from us before the vision that they fought for saw the first glimmer of its new democratic formations.
It was the gravity of their contribution that Nelson Mandela so keenly understood when he gave his first address at Cape Town City Hall, saying:
“I salute the rank-and-file members of the ANC. You have sacrificed life and limb in the pursuit of the noble cause of our struggle …I salute combatants of Umkonto We Sizwe [Spear of the Nation] , like Solomon Mahlangu and Ashley Kriel, who have paid the ultimate price for the freedom of all South Africans.
This statement is meaningful for two reasons. Firstly, we must never forget the sacrifices made to forge our South African democracy and thus must never take for granted this reality. Secondly, those of us who have the privilege of being heard and listened to, must use our voices to amplify the struggles of the marginalised in our societies – those whom famed Indian author Arundhati Roy would call the ‘deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’.
It is precisely in service of the inclusion of these kinds of people, discriminated against on the basis of their identities and realities that we gather here today. This is the kind of work that many of you undertake daily, as progressive civil society organisations whose purpose is the protection of the vulnerable and marginalised in service of our Constitution and its values.
As we gather today to discuss the role that civil society has to play in the renewal of South African society, we find ourselves in a moment where our nation is still making its slow passage through a time of deep political and economic turbulence – as the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture continues to probe the depths of arrogance, impunity, betrayal and corruption that threatened to uproot much of the hard work done in the post-apartheid environment. Its expositions, we hope will allow us to move forward with full knowledge of the state of our nation, as we work to continue to fashion society in the vision of our forebears.
It is primarily because of the revelations of this grand-scale corruption that civil society was stirred into collective action, spurred on by a realisation that the Constitutional vision for South Africa is at risk of being relegated into a mere footnote in the designs of those who guard our nation.
Nevertheless, as Toni Morrison reminds us, this is the time when we are all charged with going to work. As she states, in moments like these:
‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.’
This reality is particularly profound for civil society organisations, who are tasked with holding us all to account on the basis of the values and principles that we espouse as our north star.
I am consequently encouraged by the work that the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) has undertaken since its establishment in 1986 by several pan-African radical political economists – who maintain focus on finding African solutions to our own problems.
The meeting that we convene here today has several echoes across South Africa, a sign of our aligned realisation that the future of South Africa lies in our hands – making it ever-clear that South Africans seek to chart a way forward, governed by Constitutional values and the principle of inclusivity.
It is critically important to ensure that these discussions are not solely held in ivory towers of intellectualism and that they do not simply consist of elite factions of our society. On the basis of this, I would like to make the following points:
Firstly, if we are to inclusively consider prospects for a new South Africa, it needs to be carried out in the spirit of the Freedom Charter – which truly contained the will of our people and included diverse experiences and opinions. The Freedom Charter was adopted after broad consultations with people at grassroots level to identify the rights and aspirations of the oppressed people of South Africa, and still retains its remarkable relevance in our present, as it was one of the pillars of our Constitution.
Secondly, when democracy was ushered in, it was never assumed that the road to the attainment of material freedom, justice and equality would be an easy path to traverse. Adapting the words of former Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Mandela once stated:
“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.”
As we gather to consider how we will form a cohesive and coherent force for social justice in South Africa, we must be emboldened by these words, even as the task before us looms large.
Furthermore, the invitation to this meeting stated that ‘We seem to be caught in a trap of the legacy of apartheid and new issues that have arisen since democracy.’ A similar yoke that stalls our progress is the trap of discourse: as we are caught in the snare of perpetual discussions that do not see their realisation in action. Therefore, we are charged with keeping concrete action in mind – even as critical discussions are our first port-of-call.
What I primarily seek to draw attention to with these initial remarks is the fact that our progress as a nation must be premised on the restoration of our foundational value system. We find ourselves, as a young democracy, struggling to restore the value system that is enshrined in our Constitution – values that young freedom fighters, like Kriel, considered their guiding light.
Our values, even in the democratic era, are not a given. As our complex experience has taught us, we are at risk of losing these fundamental principles, as values require consistent work and continuous consolidation. As I have previously stated, We are duty bound to try at all times to bring to the fore the values that bring us together as fellow South Africans, as human beings, united in our diversity.
As we pursue social cohesion, our nation remains remarkably divided, in spite of the rhetoric of reconciliation. Just this week, our nation has once again been rocked by the revelation of racist utterances, shared on social media. The statements of Adam Catzevalos, and their reception, reveal how the wounds of the past are still fresh, and the historical divisions in our society clearly apparent.
This reveals the tattered nature of social cohesion – which we must attend to if we are to consider our progress as a nation, in light of the triple challenges of unemployment; poverty and inequality that endure in our present.
These are informed by and stratified along lines of race, class, gender, physical ability, mental and physical health that form the basis of the systems of exclusion that colour the character of citizenship in South Africa.
A simple observation of South African life reveals spatial, social and economic exclusion that challenge the gains of our contemporary era and urge us to reform our nation on more inclusive terms.
In closing, we are aware of the challenges – from education to health, unemployment, land and gender inequalities and the multiple other sites of exclusion. They form the basis of our work within the civil society sector, and beyond it. Our awareness of our contemporary reality is precipitated by a keen apprehension that our history is woven into the fabric of who we are.
However, we must remember that this nation is more than a composition of its challenges. Rather than being thrown into the depths of despair by the doubts that this moment raises, I charge us all to embrace doubt, in the manner that progressive German poet Bertolt Brecht urged us to when he stated:
But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.
I conclude with the words of another Brecht poem, which reminds us of the importance of collectiveness and inclusivity as we seek to chart a way forward and initiate our discussions. He writes:
Forward, without forgetting
Till the concrete question is hurled
When starving or when eating:
Whose tomorrow is tomorrow?
And whose world is the world?
This world, and this South Africa, as the Freedom Charter expresses in its opening lines, belongs to all of us – and we are charged, by this belonging, with a concomitant responsibility to protect, enhance and ensure its progress and longevity.
Thank you for your kind attention.