As an avid observer of global politics, I’ve noticed that there is a sense that a politician will be the one to save the people of the country from whatever socio-political issues they face.
The world appeared to breathe a sigh of relief when Emanuel Macron, a centrist, was elected as the president of France, triumphing over his far right competitor Marine Le Pen. It was a victory over what appeared to be a “takeover” by a myriad of right-leaning politicians such as Donald Trump, Britain’s Tory Party and its promise of Brexit, and many others. It seemed that France had won the battle against reactionary politicians and their policies and rhetoric of exclusion.
Here, in South Africa, the Zuma years were finally coming to an end, after almost a decade of blatant private sector interference – most notably by the Gupta family – in the country’s political direction. The civil unrest that arose out of the former president’s tenure would finally come to an end if the right candidate was voted in at the elective conference of the ruling party, the African National Congress. To some extent we were, even if partially, in the clear, right?
A year into Macron’s presidency, his approval rating had dropped drastically, in great part due to his administration’s tax reforms, which many in the public felt affected the average person most adversely. Then came the waves of protests by the Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes (The Yellow Vest Movement), which saw the European country engulfed in protests and riots that looked eerily familiar to the initial Fees Must Fall protests – characterised by clashes between protestors and law enforcement. It did not stop in France: all round the globe, protests were becoming a common feature in the news cycle, with countries like Hong Kong, Chile, and even in America.
The euphoria had died down, and citizens were taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with those in leadership positions in their countries. In South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, a billionaire that was implicated in the Marikana Massacre (in which the largest number of protesters were killed by the police in South Africa’s democratic dispensation) was elected president. To some, he was a departure from the Zuma years that were charactised by corruption; patrimonialism; and a political direction that was based on self-enrichment by the ruling elites, rather than on the much-needed interventions into the socio-economic inequality that has endured since the apartheid era. Indeed, when Ramaphosa took over as South Africa’s interim president, after Zuma stepped down, his first test was handling the backlash of the death of Lumka Mkhethwa. Mkhethwa, who drowned in a pit latrine, was yet another young life lost to the archaic infrastructure that has come to characterise schools in rural and low-income areas – the previous death being that of Michael Komape.
Ramaphosa declared that an audit would be undertaken and a strategy for addressing the infrastructure backlogs in schools would be developed. Many in civil society, most notably Equal Education and Section 27, voiced frustration at the then-interim president’s announcement, stating that the information and the strategy already existed, but was not being properly implemented by the government. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s solution was as superfluous as it was a revelation of the former vice president’s lack of knowledge of the policies and systems in place in a country, of which he had already been a part of the leadership.
So what do we do when our president is constantly shocked at the conditions that are faced by the vast majority of the population? Do we hope for a new leader that will be more in touch with the nation’s harsh realities? Do we become jaded and settle into political apathy? No, we organise and take the issues up ourselves. The aforementioned policy that was promulgated in order to address the school infrastructure backlogs that cost Mkhethwa and Komape their precious young lives was a product of years of massive upheaval by civil society, young learners and teachers, and many other stakeholders. The Regulations Regarding the Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure came at the cost of constant policy interventions, sleepouts outside the Houses of Parliament, demonstrations, etcetera. They did not come easily. The process of implementing these regulations is also not without need for constant monitoring by the same actors that pushed for their implementation.
What the story of the Norms and Standards tells us is that nothing that is hard-won can be rested on. Our young democracy, now in its twenties, was paid for in the blood, sweat, and tears of our predecessors. We owe it to them and, most certainly, we owe it to ourselves to maintain it – to improve it, to develop it, and to nurture it as far as we can in our lifetime.
So may we organise. May we join the calls to take to the streets, may we wake up from that torpor that has allowed us to put our faith in political elites and corporate dominance, and may we find our voices. We have a generation of youth that struggles in a prison of inopportunity; we have borne witness to the loss of lives hardly lived; we have seen the squalor, in which our people exist – there will be no hero elected into place to fix this for us. When Martin Luther King Junior said, “we not only have a right to be free, we have a duty to be free”, he was speaking of moments like these. We are the ones that will save us…
Philile Ntombela is a Masters candidate in Political Science. She previously worked as a policy researcher for civil society, where she focused on social and budget policies, and research into financial crime.
These are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.