2 April 2014, David Maimela
President of the NSRC and the National Executive of the NSRC
Vice-Chancellor Prof Mandla Makhanya and other members of UNISA management
Dean of Students, Prof LenkaBula
Leadership student organisations represented here tonight
Ladies and gentlemen, comrades and compatriots
I take this burdensome task to address the National SRC Investiture Dinner with a sense of honour and privilege. Not so long ago, I had the rare privilege of occupying the leading echelons of the student movement in South Africa. Occasions such as this are a humble reminder of the hallowed ranks and trenches from where our formative higher consciousness was moulded.
Everywhere in the world, the role of the student movement is revered and respected. Not only because it produces statesmen and women, but because it produces a critical mass necessary for social dialogue and breathing new life across society. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, nurses, priests, analysts, artists, politicians, public servants, volunteers, technicians and all other graduates of our education system who simultaneously graced the ranks of the student movement, once out there in society, tend to distinguish themselves in thought, application and execution. They share common traits such as courage, discipline, confidence, freshness, innovativeness, progressiveness, dynamism, critical thinking, provocative and service to the people among other traits. Well, if they do not evince these traits, then something must have gone wrong in the gestation process and somebody must do something about it.
I am saying all of these things not to sound boastful or arrogant but; to characterise what the value-add of the student movement is to our society. Indeed if this is the value that the student adds to society, it ought to say a lot about the nature and character of the student movement, something that I hope the current generation of the student leaders will preserve and multiply.
That is what explains my sense of honour and privilege as a guest tonight!
Programme Director, we live in a changed and changing world, one that is difficult to define in few words. We live in a world of interesting sharp contrasts and contradictions. Technical progress has made it possible for humans to live a qualitatively better life compared to previous generations and yet at the same time, in a period of boundless possibilities, we still find humans in the margins of society, condemned to poverty, ignorance and hopelessness. Whereas technical progress has produced necessary revolutionary changes to increase the comfort of human existence, it has also introduced challenges that threaten the very essence of life.
Indeed the mechanisation and later computerisation of production has led to better production processes, industrialisation at faster pace, higher and rapid profits, development and general improvement of the welfare of the people. And yet at the same time, technical progress, as ample evidence shows, has threatened the ecological system – plants, animals and humans – to the detriment of a sustainable world; to which future generations have legitimate claim.
Technical change has also affected social organisation. All over the world, as profits and companies grow, the tendency is to out-compete each other in a scramble for greater market share and profits; in the process, others emerge as monopolies through ruthless mergers and acquisitions, whilst others get out of business and others are refused entry.
The labour movement has also had to contend with changes at the shop-floor level. Instances of outsourcing, labour-brokering, casual and temporary work have had a demobilising effect on the power and influence of workers in the context of employer-employee relations. But equally, the deepening of globalisation has made it possible that workers realise increased levels worker solidarity across borders, across economic sectors and within similar value chains. Today, workers at McDonald’s in Mississippi in the United States (US) can share similar struggles, demands and victories with workers in Umthatha, South Africa.
And again, it is technical progress as illustrated by the example of the 2011 Tunisian Uprising that increased the tempo of a nation-wide and influential protest movement that shaped the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa and the Middle-East. We now know that Facebook is not just a social chat site; but a potent instrument for mobilisation to realise political change.
In this very changing world, contradictory political developments are beginning to emerge at a geopolitical level. These contradictory developments are offering hope and despair, all at once. The ‘post-War world’ is beginning to shape in ways that even cynics are beginning to accept the possibility of the dawn of a new world order, certainly not the one defined by George Bush, Snr in 1991. Today it is possible to break out of the shackles of TINA (There Is No Alternative) and claim boldly that There Is An Alternative to current world disorder!
Before I go into discussing the alternative on the horizon, I want to argue that the concept of a ‘post-War world’ is misleading in theory and practice and at worst, it is blind to history. Evidence shows that since the World War II, the US and its Western partners, has intervened in more than 50 countries across the world, the latest being Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. In other parts of the world, naked conventional war is replaced by proxy opposition forces, heavily aided by the US to undermine legitimately elected governments in pursuit of the infamous regime change policy. Venezuela, Egypt and Ukraine are recent examples. The question arises: how on earth can anyone talk about a ‘post-War world’?
To return back to my sub-theme, I am saying the politics of the world are changing and an alternative new world order is on the offing. The post-Cold War era is coming to an end. The world’s economic growth engine is retuning Asia (China and India in particular), as well as, Brazil and Mexico, with significant impact on the global economy, trade and production. Having said that, nobody should be oblivious to the fact that those who have sought to control and exploit the world for the benefit of few nations and small elites will continue to fight to retain control.
The fight to shape the course of history is represented by two sets of tendencies and two blocs. On the one hand, a tendency to engage in unilateralism, the doctrine of preventive wars, militarisation of diplomacy, abuse and undermining of multilateral platforms designed to ‘maintain peace and prevent future wars’, represents all that is toxic and degenerate. The phenomenon of extremism as reflected by the rise of terrorism and a variety of dangerous fundamentalisms are consequences of conservative domestic and foreign policies, mainly from the US and allied forces.
On the other hand, the tendency to nurture and protect multilateralism, dialogue and political solutions to settle conflicts, preservation of conventional diplomacy and a careful balance between sovereignty and intervention, represents all that is progressive and acceptable. The quest for a just, equitable world order based on the best of human values (such as human solidarity) has a better chance of emerging under this tendency. The challenge we face is to transform the world to reflect these sorts of values.
The basis of gaining hegemony, leading and evening dominating sovereign peoples and violating their territorial integrity has largely been informed by economic prosperity which also is the basis for cultural domination. It is the reason why we continue to see the US and its Western allies engaged in a protracted battle to retain their leading roles in global affairs. Africa and more broadly the South, must consciously engage with these changes with the view of directing the course of history in favour of the overwhelming wretched of the earth.
As the world changes, so does Africa as an important and natural geopolitical space. Although resurgent, war has drastically declined in Africa, interstate war is almost non-existent, peace and post-war reconstruction is on the rise, democracy and regular elections are increasingly a common feature, human development indicators indicate steady improvement in areas such as health, education and other social sectors. The recent commodities’ boom, a youth bulge, improving governance, and political stability, all combine to present Africa with unprecedented possibilities for a forward advance in the 21st century.
Without doubt, the youth will be central in driving and realising Africa 2063 Vision. The issues facing Africa today are equally issues of the youth. The youth, with their boundless energy, must continue to fight for space to shape their future, collectively with those who come before them. The youth demographic dividend is a double-edged sword. If current development trajectories exclude the youth, they will certainly serve as a source of instability but; if the youth are placed at the centre of development, then the continent shall reap the rewards of a youth demographic dividend.
If you forget everything I said tonight, please remember that given the historic possibilities of a forward advance in Africa, as the youth, we have a duty to dream. We have a duty to dream of an alternative society. A society of social justice, of expanded freedom, where the humanity of all is restored and women and children live in peace and comfort, rather in violence and fear. If you fail at everything you do as the youth, you dare not fail at dreaming of a better world and committing to its creation in action! The youth must never stop to dream!
So, whereas we see war and instability in other regions of the world, Africa is steadily regaining her rightful position in the evolution of human civilization. The return of peace and development will, as a matter of necessity, open up the space for Africa to hopefully make a unique contribution to a new civilisation in the 21st century and beyond.
I want to assume that it is because of the peace dividend, coupled with a commodities’ boom and new discoveries of hydrocarbons and other minerals that the narrative of an ‘Africa rising’, ‘Africa the growth frontier’, ‘re-awakening of the African’ is becoming a widely sung chorus. However, we must always question the nature of the growth, as well as ask the question: who benefits?
Surely we do not want a growth path that consolidates a ‘colonial Africa’, a path that continues to confine Africa into the periphery. We want a new growth path that will consolidate the sovereignty and independence of the continent. The youth must be in the forefront of the struggle to prevent the repeat of a 21st century scramble for Africa.
Because South Africa is part of Africa and the world, most of the systemic changes taking place around the world and in the continent will and must impact on South Africa and yet at the same time, South Africa must always strive to influence the world in line with the vision for a just, equitable and humane world order.
The tendency of some among us is to conflate and confuse the African National Congress (ANC) with South Africa, so much that the distinction between the two is ignored and all sorts of intellectual pretentions and dishonesties arise.
For instance, there is a very harmful and destructive narrative emerging in public discourse, one that says; the reason we have the problems we have in the country, is because of the ANC. Indeed it is true that the ANC is the governing party and it must take responsibility for a number of problems that I am sure we both know and have consensus on. Yes, at the realm of politics and governance, the ANC has exuded serious subjective weaknesses, wittingly and unwittingly.
However, it is ahistorical, unscientific and intellectually dishonest to suggest that the ANC is the only or the main reason why we have the problems we have. I want to dispute this as untrue. When we analyse problems of society, the starting point cannot be the ANC or the DA in the case of Western Cape but; the systemic and structural features that define our society.
Let us take for instance the issue of corruption. We all know that at the core of South Africa’s social formation is an economic system called capitalism. We also know that social relations are founded on definite economic grounds: that questions of politics, beliefs, ideas and culture are shaped by the nature of society’s economic system and that in return, the superstructure can shape the course of history.
Capitalism promotes a value system that says an individual must advance at the expense of fellow human beings in society, as opposed to advancing with society. A value system that uses exploitation of all sorts to advance individual well-being as opposed to the welfare of all. Necessarily, because only your life matters, this value system encourages you to do anything possible to advance your material well-being, even if it means undermining the interests of the society from which you come. As a consequence, people want to get ahead by hook or crook, indeed to get rich at all cost including by corrupt means. Private interests in particular know very well the power and depth of the public purse. Private entities do not hesitate to use public officials and representatives – already steeped in the value system of greed and personal advance – to co-opt and corrupt our public service and political leadership. At a grander scale, this corruption happens in a manner that reduces an entire state to be a ‘client state’.
Before I am misunderstood, I am not saying individuals have no power to resist the trappings of power and the temptation to advance their personal interests. I am just arguing the simple point that the past 20 years shows that whilst we thought we could transform the state as agents of change, the state and sectarian interests in some instances, has sought to transform some of us!
I hold the view that whereas it is possible that the state may degenerate under a naval-gazing political elite, I also argue that there are more political and external reasons beyond the ANC or any other party that may cause state failure or fragility.
Here we may even want to explore the sub-theme of CRISIS, using Zimbabwe as a prime example. There are two main reasons why Zimbabwe faced the crisis that it faced in the past 15 years or so. The first was due to the crisis of economic transformation and secondly, internal party crisis (complacency, decline in discipline, party structures, moral decline etc). The internal political crisis in the party and the one of economic transformation can be mutually reinforcing if strategic leadership is not exercised. When that happens, the state and the party lose legitimacy and support from the people diminishes.
Like in Zimbabwe, it is possible that in order to remain in power and reproduce itself, the political elite may resort to violence to engage in politics and further delegitimise itself and fuel all manner of crises. The consequence is the emergence of alternative populist voices and platforms. The emergence of such voices may not necessarily be dangerous. They can force renewal on the part of the incumbent party or at best still, a progressive realignment of politics.
Going forward I think four important issues will shape the course of history and the nature of politics in South Africa:
- The crisis of economic transformation
- Class formation
- The position of the youth
- The legitimacy of the State
All of these issues speak to the changing nature of our political economy and I am certain there are other important issues that all of us can identify as key to our evolving history. If we are serious about the future of South Africa, we cannot ignore these issues. There is an attempt in some quarters to analyse and understand these issues; however, the quality of especially public discourse in South Africa is very depressing.
It is in this context that I call upon the student movement to once more take its rightful place in society as an agent of change and a theatre of ideas and robust debate. I have no doubt that like previous generations, the current crop of student activists will rise to the occasion and provide the necessary leadership!
In a chapter of a book to be published later this month, I conclude my chapter on meaning of freedom as follows:
To me, freedom means to be fully human again, to live life and fulfil our cultural and creative rights without which we cannot know who we are. Freedom means being free from begging or struggling for basic human needs. I do not think human beings are meant to spend their lives on Earth struggling to live life. We are suppose to use nature, which by birth is accessible to all, to realise our full potential and talents in a manner that says we have not only existed but lived. And I believe for the majority of South Africans this is a goal they ought to work towards and achieve. But first, we all need to be enabled to realise our disablers and free ourselves from them. In other words, we need to be free to know what is freedom and how to pursue it.
With the death of President Mandela, who was free for about 24 years, the future beckons with some fundamental questions and tasks:
- No matter what we think of them, the generation of Mandela cannot be faulted on their efforts to lead the struggle for freedom and delivering the freedom we enjoy today. In terms of the future waiting for us on the horizon, what should we do to advance the cause of freedom? Are we capable of changing our circumstances for the better, just like the Mandela generation?
- Are we worthy inheritors of their revolutionary legacy as freedom fighters? Can we lay claim to be born of their blood?
History recognises women and men (young and old) who in their lifetime, seek to change society systemically to improve the human condition. These men and women have, through their ideas and actions, sought to understand their own reality and the changes taking place in their times, and have sought to bring about a new reality.
That is what awaits us. Freedom is both a gift and a burden. Freedom was never free!
I thank you.