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Civil society: It’s time to rebuild South Africa

All aspects of South African life will be impacted by the change in leadership, but to ensure the change is positive, civil society has reminded us that Jacob Zuma was not the only problem that needed fixing. We need more than just a new president.  

The Jesuit Institute South Africa has said South Africans will feel a great sense of relief with the news of Jacob Zuma’s resignation, Section27 said it felt as if the country had awoken from a nine-year nightmare, and the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office has said it hoped for a new and more honourable era in South African politics. There are very few who have not welcomed the news, but civil society in the country has been quick to point out that the change in president is just the first step. Sweeping change in our politics and leadership culture at all levels of society is essential if we are to avoid repeating the hallmarks of Zuma's presidency.

“For nine years, it seemed, the great South African project of nation-building – democracy, transparency, education and equality – got side-tracked into a morass of corruption, mismanagement of resources, cronyism and ultimately state capture,” said ethicist Anthony Egan SJ of the Jesuit Institute. Those most harmed by the process were the poor. “They became poorer as a result of nepotistic appointments of incompetents, asset stripping and diversion of public money from where it was most needed to the bank accounts of politicians who all the while proclaimed their love for the poor.” To add salt to the wound, the party that had stood for over a century as the voice of justice, equality and democracy almost lost its soul.

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation released a statement on Wednesday referring to the public letter written almost two years ago by the late stalwart in which he called for Zuma to resign. “[Kathrada] would have been saddened that it had taken so long for Zuma to 'submit to the will of the people', but also proud of the work done by individuals across all sectors of society, putting pressure on the ANC to take the decision to recall him, leading to his resignation,” said the foundation's Executive Director, Neeshan Balton. He cautioned that while the recall was a victory for the people, the fight against state capture is ongoing.

It is now time for justice, said Egan. “It is a time to ‘pay back the money’ in full, because it is needed to renew South Africa, fix rotting infrastructure, feed the poor, and improve education. It is the common moral heritage of all faiths. For Catholics these are the priorities of Catholic Social Teaching and the vision of Pope Francis. For Christians it is nothing less than the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

Similarly, Advocate Mike Pothier, Programme Manager of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) called for a swift departure from Zuma’s tumultuous presidency and business as usual. But it was important for South Africans to note that the rot in government did not start with Zuma and will not end with his exit.

“It should be remembered that Mr Zuma was put in power by a consortium of disaffected constituencies within the ANC precisely because they wanted a weak, malleable, pliant leader to replace the supposedly aloof and authoritarian Thabo Mbeki,” said Pothier in a statement, adding that the party knew exactly the kind of leader they were promoting. “Mr Zuma’s already notorious record of corruption, dishonesty, cronyism, philandery and self-advancement did not bother them at all as they foisted him on us, and thereby set in motion the disastrous decade that has sullied our reputation and set us back economically, institutionally and politically. Not all those responsible for creating the ‘Zumanami’ have yet apologised to the nation.”

Egan said the new leadership must see to it that “steps are taken that we, to borrow from Nelson Mandela, ‘never, never and never again’ return to the mess we’ve been in”. He said the Jesuit Institute commended all those who had resisted corruption and stood as beacons in society to the original values and hopes of our founders. “Civil society, faith-based organisations and the media have all had a role to play in fighting for our country and hence need to be commended. Let this work, to build the future we want, continue.”

The Jesuit Institute hopes that in this new moment, all South Africans might pause and reflect on their own complicity in corruption. This includes rejecting the rampant corruption in the corporate sector. Let us use this time to turn away from all actions and activities that might impugn our integrity.

Social justice group Section27 has called for an immediate fixing of the economy, health system and basic education – the pillars of society that have failed the majority of South Africans. “We hope this is the beginning of a new era under your leadership.” Giving advice to the new president, the group said in a statement: “We would like to make one suggestion for your State of the Nation address tomorrow night: Please make a clear statement about the importance of a vigorous, independent civil society in our constitutional democracy; that we are not the enemy, and that government officials should seek to listen to and work with civil society in the realisation of social justice.”

As such, the ANC and all other institutions of society will face deep structural challenges. The new president will have to try to rebuild an ethos of good governance; to restore trust in the institutions of democracy; to resurrect hope for a better life for all; and to regain the straight and narrow way of constitutionalism, the rule of law, and a politics of service – a “Herculean task,” said Pothier.

The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) CEO Wayne Duvenage said it was important for South Africans to get behind a new leadership that has “expressed its intention to root out corruption and introduce policies and a climate that aims to attract investment and create jobs.” And the Kathrada Foundation said the ANC leadership now has a duty to ensure that corruption is tackled and “any attempt to exonerate those behind its facilitation is quashed”. There is much work to be done and it is needed quickly.

While the changing of the guard has been hailed for being peaceful, and we should credit Zuma for saying that “no life should be lost in my name,” it is now the duty of all structures of society to work towards a just and corruption-free society, never again allowing the spread of rot we had recently become accustomed to. It's time to rebuild our country for all its people.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.



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Claire Mathieson
Writer, editor and knowledge management specialist, Claire has worked in both traditional and Catholic media spaces. She balances her time between providing strategic communications and knowledge management in the world of climate change and sustainable development and as an associate editor on spotlight.africa.

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