Yesterday I saw our two possible futures

Dave Steward writes on the EFF disruption of the National Foundations Dialogue Initiative


Yesterday I saw two possible futures for South Africa: the one represented by the newly launched National Foundations Dialogue Initiative - and the other by the Economic Freedom Fighters.

After two years of planning, the National Foundations Dialogue Initiative finally became a reality. Eight foundations - representing a broad spectrum of South African politics and historic traditions came together to start a process that they hope will lead to a national dialogue on the serious constitutional, economic and racial problems that confront South Africa.

They included the Thabo Mbeki Foundation; the Chief Albert Luthuli Foundation; the Helen Suzman Foundation; the Jakes Gerwel Foundation; the Umlambo Foundation; the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust; the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation and the FW de Klerk Foundation. The Foundations come from widely differing backgrounds with very divergent ideologies and approaches. They ranged from the Pan-Africanists to ANC stalwarts, liberals and constitutionalists.

The Foundations were, however, united in their common perception of the serious constitutional, economic and social challenges confronting South Africa and the need for ordinary South Africans to talk to one another about these problems.

In an unprecedented development, three former Presidents and a former Deputy President - FW de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (by video message) - shared a platform and spoke about the problems confronting South Africa. They were followed by representatives of the eight foundations - all of whom expressed their support for the national dialogue process.

During the afternoon, the audience of about 300 broke up into ten discussion groups. Their task was to identify the issues that should be addressed during the dialogue process. They came up with a list of pressing challenges - including unemployment, inequality, hopeless poverty, our shockingly bad education system; corruption and strained race relations.

My group observed that the National Development Plan had already formulated proposals to deal with many of these problems - but was just not being implemented. We also discussed the possibility of resuscitating the National Peace Initiative which had achieved considerable success in promoting inter-community cooperation during the early 1990s.

Just before lunch about forty EFF supporters - clad in red boiler-suits - arrived at the conference. At first they sat quietly and followed the proceedings. Then, when Neeshan Balton of the Kathrada Foundation was speaking, five of them mounted the stage and stood silently beside him. They displayed placards claiming that FW de Klerk was a "Killer" and a "Mass Murderer" and that "Zuma is a Thief". When Balton interrupted his speech to say that the protesters’ action was wrong and unacceptable - the EFF contingent went wild. They shouted him down and began singing, stamping and blowing whistles. One of the protesters raised a chair above his head and charged toward the podium but was restrained by members of the audience.

Organisers tried to call for order - but time and again they were shouted down.

The EFF action came in the wake of a statement by Julius Malema earlier in the day in which he had accused De Klerk of being a mass murderer. He also criticised Presidents Mbeki and Motlanthe for meeting with De Klerk to try "to find solutions" for South Africa. "That's a problem ... because by recognising De Klerk, Mbeki and Motlanthe make a mistake that will lead to white racists thinking they still have a place in South Africa."  

He was clearly incensed by the prospect of black and white South Africans talking to one another about the future of South Africa. This did not fit in with the narrative encapsulated in his statement last November when he proclaimed that

“We, the rightful owners, our peace was disturbed by the white man’s arrival here…They killed our people during land dispossession… They found peaceful Africans here. They killed them! They slaughtered them, like animals! We are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now”.

We have seen Malema and his kind before during the darkest periods of the last century; political activists dressed in colour-coded uniforms - black shirts in Italy or brown shirts in Germany. They accept none of rules of democratic political behavior; they break up the meetings of their opponents with bully-boy tactics; and they whip up racial animosity.

The question is why such behavior is tolerated in our constitutional democracy? Why are people allowed to run rough-shod over the constitutional rights of others - to deprive them of their right to freedom of expression or free assembly and association? Why are they permitted to propagate hate speech and threaten people on the basis of their race? What is the SA Human Rights Commission doing to prevent such abuses?

The meeting was forced to close 30 minutes before its scheduled ending. The delegates dispersed - seething and shocked by the behavior of the EFF contingent. However, all were determined to continue with the national dialogue: all believed more firmly than ever before that ordinary South Africans should have the opportunity of reasoning with one another about the future of their country and their children.

The EFF demonstration graphically illustrated the alternative to rational and inclusive solutions. The choice is pretty stark:

- on the one hand there is racially divisive mobilisation; the rejection of the Constitution and democratic standards; and demands for radical economic policies;

- on the other there is a conviction that all South Africans need to work together to solve our problems; a reaffirmation of the values in the Constitution; and a search for pragmatic and inclusive solutions.

The one road leads to the realisation of the vision in our Constitution.

The other road leads to Zimbabwe and to Venezuela. Venezuela was once the richest country in South America. Following the radical economic transformation programme of the Chavistas the economy has shrunk by 27%; it no longer produces sufficient food for its people; there is widespread hunger and democracy is disintegrating.

Yeats’s words came to mind:

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction and the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

Yesterday we saw the worst. They were filled with passionate intensity.

But we also saw the best. They have reaffirmed their conviction that South Africa belongs to all who live in it - united in their diversity. They have renewed their commitment to the values that underlie the Constitution and the need for South Africans to search together for inclusive solutions - just as we did during the early 1990s.

They represent the vast majority of decent South Africans from all our communities. The good news is that if we talk to one another about the problems that confront us the centre can - and will - hold.

Dave Steward is Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation