Although South Africa is a country of infinite potential, as a nation we are in a serious state of chronic political and economic crisis. This is unfortunately being facilitated both by the governing ANC and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
The mood of excessive pessimism and despair in South Africa at present is to a great extent unwarranted because as an operating democracy there are many positive factors that need to be considered and given cogent expression to. President Ramaphosa and his administration are profoundly aware of the nature of our political and economic situation and are endeavouring valiantly to address the pressing issues facing our fledgling but vibrant democracy.
However what they are not getting across to the public at large is a strong message of political confidence in the country and its people. There appears to be void in or at least a very week effort at effective public relations. I am not suggesting that they embark on a mere propaganda exercise, which would be counter-productive, but rather to make a serious and meaningful effort at presenting the positive conduct of government in addressing and confronting the intractable problems facing the country at large and its people.
Although President Ramaphosa is intensely active on both the domestic and international scene and indeed is making good speeches and always appears to act presidentially and with determination, something is indeed missing and the appropriate message is not getting across to the public. Although this also applies to many of his ministers, who are competent and very industrious, what is manifestly lacking is a coherent and cogent message which is absolutely essential in a time of our ‘darkest hour’ to counter the prevailing pessimism and an impression of government paralysis and the prophets of gloom and doom. Also such a message would indicate that he is listening to the voices of the public.
When Franklin D Roosevelt who became the President of the United States at the height of the world depression in the 1930s by, inter alia, his legendary ‘fire side’ talks and his sheer determination and leadership qualities, conveyed a dispassionate but powerful message that imbued the American public with faith and confidence in their country, its people and their leaders. This was most remarkable because Roosevelt was disabled, largely confined to a wheel chair as a polio victim, but nevertheless he took the American people into his confidence and transpired to become one of their most exceptional American Presidents and a world leader par excellence, who together with, inter alia, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and indeed JC Smuts, contributed to the Allied Victory in 1945.
President Ramaphosa needs to take a leaf out of the book of Roosevelt that by skilful public relations and a coherent strong message he can he inspire the South African public with confidence in the determination of his administration to boldly and honestly confront and resolve the challenges that confront our country by taking the people into his confidence.
Furthermore, our democracy is a parliamentary one involving a multiparty system, in which the largest opposition party, the DA, has a vital and constructive role to play as ‘loyal opposition’ in the famous Westminster tradition. This involves that it must fulfil a powerful oversight role using robust criticism of the government of the day where this is justified, as well as constructive support when this is desirable in the national interest. Unfortunately DA is at present involved in an acrimonious power struggle between two factions: between the ‘old guard’ of the essentially white liberals, aligned to Helen Zille, and the ‘new guard’ of essentially the social democrats, aligned to Musi Maimane. There is however no doubt that the struggle in the DA, in which there are competent and indeed charismatic leaders, is not purely ideological, but powerful personalities are involved in this invidious power contestation.
It is submitted that it is most certainly not in the national interest for the DA to split. Politics by its very nature, involves the art of compromise and therefore liberal and social democracy are certainly not incompatible. Wise and far seeing leadership within the DA should attempt to bridge the differences between policies and personalities in the Party and should endeavour to act in the national interest and bring about a meaningful compromise so that a strong and united DA can fulfil the role as a government in waiting in our parliamentary system or at least contributing to this ideal. Personal egos and grand standing which unfortunately exist in abundance should be put aside in the national interest.
Such a united opposition party should also be reaching out to the Ramaphosa faction within the ANC and exploring the possibilities of a Government of National Unity in both spirit and ultimately in substance because the parting of the ways in the ANC is a very real possibility since the two factions within the governing party are, it is submitted, incompatible. The resource driven economic model faction that Cyril Ramaphosa is committed to in order to revive the ailing South African economy, premised on the National Democratic Plan is incompatible with the National Democratic Revolution espoused by the Zuma faction and the trade unions, based as it is, on virtually unqualified socialism, a centralised economy and nationalisation. This creates a singular opportunity for a united DA, which should be reaching out to and exploring the options inherent in the present political scenario.
Civil society and faith based organisations have a vital role to play by contributing to a positive attitude in our country and bridge building in South Africa and by their efforts, inter alia, at alleviating poverty, unemployment, corruption and supporting government in this regard. People and organisations concentrating exclusively on all the negative aspects of our social and political life do not actually solve but exacerbate problems. These organisations must also act in the national interest and build bridges of understanding.
South Africans having crafted an exemplary constitution at a sublimely great cost by the blood of the martyrs which has contributed to national reconciliation in a system of parliamentary democracy over a period of 25 years need to wisely and unselfishly use parliamentary democracy to revolve by their determined efforts the challenges facing us as a country at this critical juncture of our history.
George Devenish is Emeritus Professor of Public Law at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.