Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Like millions of other Africans, I was riveted by President Barack Obama’s speech to Ghana’s parliament recently. I do not need to add to the endless commentary on the President’s soaring rhetoric: it is beautiful. There is no other leader in the world today who can speak to people, especially young people, so directly and inspirationally.
Yet shorn of its elegant cadences, Obama’s speech in Accra contained a simple prosaic message: Africa must do for itself what others cannot. If any of Obama’s predecessors had given the same speech, he may well have been given short shrift. The Southern charm of a Bill Clinton or the shoot-from-the-hip "give it to them straight" parlance of a George W. Bush would simply have not been able to communicate the same message – well, not without a few pot shots being taken at Air Force One.
Only an American president whose African grandfather experienced the humiliation of racist British imperialism could say to us as candidly as Obama did: the main problem is not our colonial legacy but what we have done and failed to. In simple terms, Obama’s speech was a tract for self-help and self-reliance.
As a blogger on the Huffington Post observed, "No American president has ever spoken so candidly on African soil about the real roots of Africa’s development malaise, which lie in the "big man" syndrome of patronage-drenched ethnic politics, contempt for the rule of law, and wanton abuse of human rights. "
Obama said: "It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.
In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many."
Yes, our forefathers had to make some difficult and humiliating adjustments to the colonial rule. The transfer from green pastures to squalid urban hostels in South Africa caused irreparable damage to the traditional ways of life. Yet, at the same time, it spurred in the African people previously untapped energy, ebullience and adaptability. Obama’s speech was a call for us to assume individual and collective responsibility for our own destinies.
He was telling us, as Kennedy once told the American people: "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country".
It was this philosophy of self-help and self-reliance which inspired me when I founded Inkatha. I don’t see people as a problem to be handled by government like an anonymous statistic. I see people who have problems needing to be helped by government: a hand up, not a hand out. This way I have always promoted measures to resuscitate rural agriculture and resisted the development of a dependency culture based on grants.
Another related problem is corruption, which Obama also spoke crisply about.
Corruption, by example, is rampant among grain distributors in areas suffering scarcity. According to a recent report, SA has seen a 200 percent increase in the wheat prices in the past year, which is, in part, attributable to pervasive price-fixing amongst the bread and diary sectors.
Government must redouble its efforts to root out industry collusion, which is threatening the country’s food security. I contend, if we cannot guarantee food security for all our people, the state has failed.
And it is only by the creation of small, medium and micro enterprises can we slay the poverty dragon and create eighty percent of the new jobs needed to lift South Africa’s poorest six million above the breadline. We have always believed that self-help and self-reliance is the key to survival and to establishing socio-economic stability not only in words but also in deeds.
Nor could Obama have been more forthright in identifying bad governance – corruption, lawlessness, the widespread abuse of human rights, and purely superficial deference to democratic norms – as the bane of Africa’s quest for development and dignity. It is to our often superficial deference to democratic norms which I will now turn.
Under Mr Mandela, Mr Mbeki, Mr Motlanthe and now Mr Zuma our post-apartheid governments have made giant strides in the delivery of much-needed public goods, values and services to their hitherto marginalised constituents. By so doing, the post-apartheid state has largely legitimised itself in the eyes of the people.
In a fundamental sense, the South African state has progressively sought to become constitutional and anchored on the rule of law. And our civil society organisations and the political opposition have, much to the annoyance of those in power, been trying hard to put this state on the road to becoming a genuine civic society where the rights and freedom of individuals reign supreme.
On the whole, the democratising South African state has been caught between substantive and procedural democracy, perilously edging towards the latter.
Several factors have been responsible for this trajectory. These include, in my view, the enduring institutional framework of the apartheid state, the nature of our elite-pacted democratic transition and the legacy of poor, unemployed and largely unemployable under-classes whose primary preoccupation is with sheer survival rather than with the nuances of political participation. These factors have given the ruling party a free hand to pursue an institutional approach towards our shared democratic goals. It is therefore not the institutions themselves but their day-to-day functioning which betrays the lack of substance in our much touted democracy.
Executive accountability, Parliament’s oversight role, state ethics, service delivery, policy development and public debate have all been hindered by obsolete ideology, stodgy political correctness and an empty rhetoric of self-congratulation.
The consequences have been as devastating as they have been far- reaching.
The prospect of a vibrant multi-party democracy has receded as the reality of a one-party state has settled in. The very prevailing mores and values – the distinction between us and them – which our democratic order sought to supersede now appear to have been further entrenched. Race, not individual achievement and merit, once again dominates government policy, economic entitlement and public discourse. Collectivism, corporatism and interventionism have all curtailed individual liberty. Concepts such as vigilance, creativity, hard work and commitment have inevitably suffered. We will therefore do well to heed Obama’s message in this regard.
I still like to think however that South Africa, with our relatively peaceful transition, a toolkit of conflict resolution and a few lessons learned in Zimbabwe, will continue to be shorthand for an idea or "ideal".
We have built a reasonably liberal democracy, with (largely) repeated free and fair elections, media freedom, a pluralistic civil society, and responsible governance. South Africa, despite our modest means, bears the yoke of continental leadership. Our fingerprints are all over NEPAD and a host of other ambitious regional initiatives. It is a heavy yoke but it is also a rewarding responsibility. There is so much to do with it, so much to achieve.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
Contact: Liezl van der Merwe, 083 611 7470.