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Op Ed | Social Justice Assembly gathers to address multiple crises facing SA

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Nontando Ngamlana

First published in The Daily Maverick

It feels as though Stage 6 rolling blackouts will be the death of us all. Scheduled blackouts symbolise so much that has gone wrong in South Africa since the dawn of democracy. We face multiple crises that, while often attributed to the governing ANC, are the doing of all of us.

Because rolling blackouts sharply affect all our lives in immediate and urgent ways, they tend to push out of mind some of the other critical crises we face and their impact. The recent ANC elective conference was one such crisis. It displayed in significant ways the perpetual inward-looking tendency of political parties that has become all too common. It also was yet another moment in which public good was sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

Sadly, at the next general election in 2024 the South African public will inherit public representatives with questionable moral compasses and with no demonstrated interest in serving for the public good, as a consequence of our electoral system. As things stand, our electoral system restricts us to electing political parties who in turn choose candidates for public office based entirely on criteria and mechanisms that are not open to public scrutiny.

It is contempt for citizens to be saddled with compromised candidates who rise to political office on the back of, and despite, scandals of the magnitude and nature of Phala Phala, Digital Vibes and many others. The strengthening of governance and public institutions in our country demands, as one of the first steps, urgent reforms to the electoral system, but political parties are resistant to introducing a more thoroughgoing Electoral Amendment Bill in Parliament.

Living in fear

With the dimmed lights, a sense of safety and of community that once held local communities together has also been eroded and many have fallen back and cleave to their primary positions based on race, religion, tribes, language, social status, and so on. We live in fear that our homes may be burgled at any point and we may be raped, maimed or even killed. Some among us fear even the people who live with us, who may be the very abuser or the rapist from whom we need protection. The police are hardly any help most of the time; they are mired in their own governance, capacity and resource challenges.

The deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, now sharply exacerbated by the ongoing rolling blackouts, only serve to remind us of the gravity of the crises with which we are confronted. While it may be very easy and tempting to lay the blame solely at the government’s door, we (as the public) must reflect on our own complacency and contribution to the crises.

The road accident statistics for December 2022 are yet to be published but preliminary reports paint a bleak picture. Many vehicles on the road were driven by drunken people in gleeful disregard of our laws and law enforcement officials. So many men see no problem in merrily urinating on roadsides in full view of anyone passing by, demonstrating the growing disregard we have for each other.

Vigilante groups and collective violence of the nature meted out by groups of community members, among others, are a common occurrence.

What can be done?

Clearly, we are a country in crises. What then can and must we do about these crises as we begin 2023?

A group of 250 leaders from social justice organisations from across the country will be meeting in Pretoria on 26 and 27 January to ponder this question and to craft an agenda for change, one that will rally the social justice sector towards a coherent response to the crises.

This is a historic moment in which the social justice sector organisations will meet for the first time since the dawn of democracy to collectively strategise. This is in recognition of the many victories that the social justice sector has won over the years, that have contributed to slowing down our descent into a failed state and the collapse of our democracy.

Examples abound of the victories the sector achieved, from the struggle for liberation to date.

One example that comes to mind of post-1994 early movement building is that of the Treatment Action Campaign’s fight with government for the provision of life-saving medication to HIV-positive patients. Many other examples exist across the country and at different levels, all pointing to the existence of a vibrant social justice sector in the country.

However, in response to the present crises, the work of these social justice organisations (social movements, activists, and many others in the sector) needs to be coordinated, sustained and in some cases scaled up, if we are to turn the corner on the slide we are on towards a failed state.

The Social Justice Assembly will be a watershed event convening to discuss how to work across issues, movements and organisations and geographic areas to protect our democratic values, rebuild institutions of the state, hold those in public office accountable more effectively and revive an ethos of service to others. It is a moment that recognises the value-add of the social justice sector in  the democracy-strengthening project and will, once more, sound a call to action that must rally the sector.

There is a lot of work to be done in rebuilding our country into that which our forebears had envisioned, fought for, and died for; a prosperous, thriving, socially cohesive, and socially just society. The Social Justice Assembly cannot come a minute too soon.

To find out more about the Social Justice Assembly visit: Social Justice Assembly 

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Executive Director of the Public Affairs Research Institute and teaches in the Anthropology and Development Studies Department at the University of Johannesburg.

Nontando Ngamlana is the Executive Director of Afesis-Corplan in East London.