Civil Society debates SONA

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his state-of-the-nation address in the national Assembly on Friday evening. PHOTO: Phando Jikelo/ANA Photo

A flame of hope for a better life for all was rekindled in the hearts of many South Africans as President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his first State of the Nation Address in parliament on February 16.

As I witnessed the occasion sitting in the public gallery with other invited guests, I made a strong connection with paraphrased lyrics of the legendary Hugh Masekela’s Send Me song: “We are at a moment in the history of our nation when the people, through their determination, have started to turn the country around. We can envisage the triumph over poverty, we can see the end of the battle against AIDS. Now is the time to lend a hand. Now is the time for each of us to say ‘send me’. Now is the time for all of us to work together, in honour of Nelson Mandela, to build a new, better South Africa for all.”

Throughout his address, Ramaphosa’s choice of words recognised that there is a transformative interpretive nuance that contributes to knowledge when history and contemporary interpretation of the state of our nation highlights silenced and marginalised voices of the citizens in the context of state capture that has engulfed our nation and which is now a subject of investigation by a judicial commission of inquiry.

Firstly, it is in this spirit that those of us in the civil society circles welcome with a sense of commitment to be involved the announcement that: “In recognising the critical role that NGOs and community-based organisation play in tackling poverty, inequality and related social problems, we will convene a Social Sector Summit during the course of this year. Among other things, this Summit should seek to improve the interface between the state and civil society and
address the challenges that NGOs and CBOs face.”

The renewed commitment to working together is likely to enhance civil society’s role in the National Anti-Corruption Forum, at NEDLAC, at the Election Monitoring Network and the collective efforts of civil society, business, and government to combat corruption. It likely also to assist the African Union’s Peer Review Mechanism to keep the momentum in the fight against corruption in the continent.

In the case of the state of our nation today, there is hope that these silenced and marginalised voices of the citizens will once more be granted due recognition in a positive manner to share stories that draw from and contribute towards creating a unique archive record which is often located outside the four corners of libraries and national archive buildings, and equally valuable.

Information harvested from this broad archive record should contribute in a meaningful way to new knowledge in a manner that recognises the plurality of our shared past, which also points to the plurality of our shared future that must continue to unite us in our diversity as South Africans.

Public participation processes envisaged in Ramaphosa’s address should always be objectively genuine and be deliberately designed to gather as wide a diversity of views as possible for each affected sector of the society to be fully or reasonably well-informed about all the key reasons for any decisions on what the limited state resources will be used for. Public participation processes should neither be a sheer box-ticking exercise nor should they ever be simply about the quantity of meetings held ahead of the 2019 national and provincial elections.

Instead, they should always seek to embrace the substantive quality and representivity of particularly the opposing views in order to genuinely ensure the adequacy of the participatory process in marshalling an aligned state machinery as well efforts of various stakeholders.

Even in an environment driven by political coalitions at municipal level and confrontations in the National Assembly, it is wide-ranging quality of opposing views that must be allowed to be properly ventilated and engaged with to avoid unfairness to those opposed to the proposed changes in allocation of state resources to continue to bail out state-owed enterprises. It is in that spirit that human rights can be enjoyed by all citizens and national unity can be achieved.

Secondly, we are pleased that Ramaphosa touched a correct note when he said: “More than 17 million social grants are paid each month, benefiting nearly a third of the population. We know, however, that if we are to break the cycle of poverty, we need to educate the children of the poor. We have insisted that this should start in early childhood. Today we have nearly a million children in early childhood development facilities.”

We say so in recognition of the fact that early childhood services are mostly privately provided by the informal sector through community-based facilities and both formal and informal ECD facilities are unevenly spatially distributed such that they do not yet reach the most vulnerable poor children, especially in rural areas and informal settlements.

Civil society organisations and researchers active in the sector have been consistently pointing out that the current funding model lies at the heart of the perpetual inequity that characterises the ECD landscape as available programmes and facilities for children aged zero to four years are still largely initiated by private organisations or individuals who bear the full cost of establishing the programme.

To deal with this, government policy and spending must be geared towards provision of services that include birth registration, child and maternal health, nutrition, immunisation, referral services for health and social services, early learning programmes, and water and sanitation.

Thirdly, as we recommit to fighting corruption, we should promote and strengthen existing protection measures for whistleblowers in order to address concerns that the protective scope of existing laws is too narrow and lacks a consolidated and comprehensive framework on whistleblowing.

Instead, whistleblowing is regulated by a splintered series of different laws that apply varying obligations to public and private entities, and different levels of protection for different categories of whistleblowers. What South Africa needs is a framework that includes bodies and organisations that could also effectively deal with complaints but are outside the ambit of the offices of the Public Protector and the Auditor General. This will enable ordinary citizens
at local level, including trade union members, to engage actively in the fight against corruption.

And so, as Ramaphosa says “Send Me”, civil society replies “And So Say All of Us”. So our revival as a nation is not in doubt.

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is the Civil Society Convenor at the National Anti-Corruption Forum, and Co-Chairperson of the Elections 2019 National Coordinating Forum