Thami Ntenteni:Why South Africa needs a national dialogue at this time

The events of the past few weeks, culminating in massive demonstrations and protest marches in, among other places, Tshwane, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town held on April 7, and calls for the president of the republic to step down, have rekindled memories of a history that lies buried in history books and possibly even forgotten as the country faces new challenges.

There is an inconvenient truism in the adage that a people who do not know where they come from, a people who forget the historical lessons of the past, are bound to repeat them.

It was a different time, different circumstances and conditions and those in power were different, identical only in their conviction and comfortable in the invincibility of their power and might.

It could be said without fear of contradiction that the country was poised then on the brink of civil strife and conflict as subsequent events demonstrated.

The leaders opposed to the apartheid regime at the time, including the iconic iNkosi Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, were engaged in a titanic struggle to pull the country back from the brink of the precipice.

The occasion was the All-in African Conference and stay-at-home which was held in Pietermaritzburg on March 25 and 26 1961.

This conference declared that “a grave situation confronts South Africa . . . in this situation it is imperative that all the African people of this country, irrespective of their political, religious or other affiliation, should unite to speak with one voice”.

At the time the leaders and participants in the conference recognised “the historic responsibility which rests on us”.

Some 56 years later, on April 9 this year, under different circumstances and conditions, on the 23rd anniversary of a democratic South Africa, the iNkosi Albert Luthuli Foundation, the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Foundation, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, the F W de Klerk Foundation, the Umlambo Foundation, the Helen Suzman Foundation and the Jakes Gerwel Foundation, in an unprecedented show of unity, came together to call for a “national foundation dialogue initiative”.

In a statement released on April 9, they state, “These foundations are deeply concerned about the state of our young democracy . . . They are of the view that the challenges we are currently faced with need to be attended to as a matter of urgency.

“These challenges have generated a national crisis which negatively affects our young democracy.”

One may contest the analogy herein, depicting the behaviour of an oppressive minority regime and that of a democratically elected government.

However, one cannot escape the similarity of the words used, in 1961, where the leaders said, “A grave situation confronts the people of South Africa” and the foundations in 2017 say, “These challenges have generated a national crisis which negatively affects our young democracy”.

In his Christmas message of December last year, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba used his sermon to deliver this ominous message about the state of our democracy and explicitly drew an analogy between the current state of our country and the troubled times of the 1960s.

“It feels as if we are back to the national pain of 1963, living under a state of emergency, imposed on us by careless and corrupt leaders who have forgotten us, stripped us of our dignity.

“People of faith need to begin asking: ‘At what stage do we, as churches, as mosques, as synagogues, withdraw our moral support for a democratically elected government?’ ”

He continued, “When do we name the gluttony, the inability to control the pursuit of excess?

“When do we name the fraudsters who are unable to control their insatiable appetite for obscene wealth, accumulated at the expense of the poorest of the poor?”

It is only an incorrigible denialist who can argue against the view that the new democracy faces a crisis.

It has become the norm rather than the exception to read opinion pieces in the media such as “Alternative leadership is being sought in a bid to rescue the country from political and economic turmoil”.

The Pietermaritzburg meeting in 1961 called for a “national convention of elected representatives of all adult men and women on an equal basis irrespective of race, colour, creed or other limitations” to address the challenges of the time.

The various foundations “call upon all South Africans to participate in and rally behind this initiative to find lasting solutions to the challenges facing our beloved country”.

The failure of the apartheid regime to heed the call for a “national convention” in 1961 resulted in the unnecessary loss of life, human suffering with tragic consequences, from which South Africa has yet to recover.

The question is: can South Africa afford not to heed the call for a national dialogue and run the risk of history repeating itself?

Former president Thabo Mbeki put this in the simplest words when he said, “We need to look at where we were yesterday and where we want to be tomorrow, acknowledging our successes and confronting our challenges.”

It is instructive therefore to heed also Nelson Mandela’s counsel when he criticised the apathy and inactivity of some at the time.

He said, “In the course of our struggle against the system of Bantu authorities, we heard many fighting speeches delivered by men we trusted most, but when the hour of decision came they did not have the courage of their convictions.”

Thami Ntenteni is the head of communications at the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

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