Association Ecosystem Forum 2023

Association Ecosystem Forum 2023

Every day, new headlines warn of yet more failings that point to the forthcoming collapse of South Africa. But just how imminent is this collapse? Is it possible to rebuild our country? And if so, what role do young people (and entrepreneurs in particular) play in creating a South Africa worth fighting for? 

This was the question under debate at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation’s recent Ecosystem Forum. On hand to discuss the issue was a panel led by the Foundation’s Head of Public Affairs and Communications Nontando Mthethwa, and included Tessa Dooms, the Social Director of the Rivonia Circle – an organisation which encourages political participation at community level, and Lerato Shai, a Director of the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention (PYEI). 

Can We Save South Africa?

Dooms and Shai picked up on many of the issues raised in a keynote speech given by CA, author, activist and radio host Khaya Sithole, who was the first to raise the question: What, exactly does a South Africa worth fighting for look like? 

Sithole pointed out that the fragmented nature of our society means that this isn’t the only issue we need to address. A far more challenging consideration is the route we will need to take to repair our current damaged systems to reach this ideal state. He maintains that one of the factors that has given rise to this fragmentation is the fact that many South Africans appear to feel that their fight ended when democracy was achieved in 1994. Until that time, communities worked hard to get the most out of their resources – Sithole mentions how the pupils at his school attended classes in shifts in an old church building, for example. This vigour and commitment seem to have diminished, and there is a sense that we have been happy to leave the goals we once so ardently pursued in the hands of government. 

Sithole believes that this is a grave mistake as there are a myriad of examples of matters that have been mismanaged – with the result that our society is more polarized than ever before. Added to this is a general sense of detachment, amplified by the fact that for those who can afford it, there is no need to rely on the state for anything. We have private security companies, private schools and, increasingly, private means of generating power. Of course, these private suppliers are the preserves of the few. This point was highlighted by a now infamous cover of Time magazine published shortly before the 2019 elections, which showed the affluence of the suburbs juxtaposed sharply against the poverty of the township just meters away – a hard-hitting visual depiction of the world’s most unequal society. 

Sithole points out that the riots of July 2021 were an almost inevitable outcome of this state of being – although, he says, protests and violence are enacted almost every day in order to show citizens’ disgruntlement with the state. Usually, these protests have little impact because of their disparate nature. On this occasion, however, these disparate points converged to create a force that could no longer be ignored. 

The frequency of these protests points to the fact that South African citizens feel they have little recourse when their voices are not being heard. Burning public property has become de facto, because it is only when there is a grave threat to safety that government listens – and so, the idea that violence is the only way to solve dissatisfaction is becoming a part of our social DNA. 

The July riots pointed to the fact that we desperately need to redefine our economy. While we may have tried to redistribute existing resources, the simple fact is that those resources were cultivated over a long time, to serve a small audience – and we haven’t, unfortunately, made investment of the magnitude that allows for the development of bulk infrastructure across the country or universal electrification. In some cases, the fallout is inconvenient; in others – such when 20 people in Hammanskraal died because of inadequate water treatment infrastructure – it is fatal. 

While it may seem tempting to give up hope, Sithole points to the fact that there are still 60 million South Africans who have faith in the country as a signal that all is not lost. The problem, he says, is that this hope hinges on the belief that those who have the power to effect change will exercise it. And if they don’t, he warns that we may well see a rise in vigilante leadership – as we have already experienced, when Kenny Kunene took on what he labelled “undesirables” in Johannesburg’s CBD during his two-day stint as acting mayor. 

 Sithole insists that young people are South Africa’s best chance of fixing these problems, not only by taking part in elections, but perhaps more importantly, through asking the right questions and interrogating politicians – actions that will give rise to a culture of accountability that is much needed if we are to see the change, we so desire. 

 Here, again, there are hurdles to overcome, Sithole warns, as many young South Africans are impacted by migration – not only in terms of leaving the country, but in migrating from the social protection mechanisms which shield them from the harsher aspects of poverty until they finish their basic education. Following this, until they qualify for a social grant at the age of 65, they may well find themselves competing against their mothers and even grandmothers in an economy that simply cannot create enough jobs. 


A Push for Accountability 

The answers to these challenges may well be found at the polls next year. Dooms certainly hopes so, but she is concerned that most South Africans are suffering from a triple-headed malaise characterized by disillusionment with a democracy which has not worked for them (if it did, they would not be living in a shack just as their mothers and grandmothers did); demobilization, which has come about as people handed over their political agency to the ruling party and which, in turn, has led to a strong sense of disenfranchisement: the feeling that we do not have political, social or material ownership of South African. 

 Shai maintains that government is not ignoring its problems. The establishment of the PYEI is proof that it understands it needs to address its challenges; however, she says, the existence of red tap hampers efforts which would lead to the large-scale change we need. She, too, is concerned that young people feel they have no agency over their contribution but believes that every choice we make – around the products we buy, where how we invest our labour, and whether we stay or leave the country – impact our society in some way. Shai admits that she would like to see government help young people unlock that agency and says that it must pay attention to the types of structures that must be put in place for this to happen. This is especially relevant in the entrepreneurial space, where there are several initiatives in place – but, without proper co-ordination, they devolve into chaos. One of the key actions young people can take, Shai says, is by using their voices to raise awareness around the issues they care about and, even more than this, to hold government accountable for its approach to these issues. 

Dooms agrees that participation is vital. She invites young people to envisage their ideal South Africa – even if it varies wildly from the version with which we’re familiar. In fact, she says that letting go of ‘sacred cows’ – like the idea that democracy is the political ideal – may be the path to finding a South Africa worth fighting for. Against this backdrop, ‘participation’ could mean paying an active role in politics (because bad politicians will continue to thrive unless good politicians’ step forward), familiarizing ourselves with the manifestos of political parties beyond the obvious contestants, and mobilizing ourselves into groups around shared interests, whether that’s creating safer communities or advocating for better education. 


Time to Step Forward 

 Audience members appeared to share Dooms’ belief that it’s worth challenging the current status quo – not only politically, but also in terms of the economic systems in place. Specifically, one participant indicated that capitalism, and the long working hours required to uphold the system, may sap citizens of the energy they could otherwise direct towards mobilization. 

 Another participant voiced concerns around the quality of leadership in South Africa. Dooms’ take on this is that there is no lack of good leaders in South Africa. That said, she acknowledges that our current political system does not encourage our leaders to give of their best. In other countries, political parties are required to put forward a list of their representatives, so that citizens can interrogate their qualities and what qualifies them for the job, and even choose them. South Africa does not follow this model. Instead, parties can elect their own representatives to parliament – which discourages a culture of accountability. Dooms questions this, pointing out that no employer would appoint a new staff member without subjecting them first to an in-depth interview – so why are our political representatives allowed to stand for us without similar interrogation? 

 Linked to this, audience members mentioned their worry that skills programmes focus on quotas, rather than fostering a culture of excellence – a trend which could become problematic if South Africa is serious about gaining a place on the world stage. 

The consensus is clear: there are many areas where young South Africans can – and should – lend their abilities, talents and energies. If we do not exercise what power we must make government accountable, we cannot expect answers when things go wrong. 

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