Commemorating three important days

This week we commemorate three important days in the history of South Africa, both of which have had a profound impact on our reasonably-young democracy, and a third day which should have had greater impact.

The first is the 33rd anniversary of the United Democratic Front, which was formed at the Rocklands civic centre in Mitchells Plain on Saturday 20 August 1983. The UDF was a coalition of organisations opposed to apartheid legislation and played a key role in the ultimate dismantling of the apartheid state. However, as soon as the ANC leadership returned from exile, they disbanded the UDF, something which many people still feel was a mistake.

The UDF started out in opposition to attempts by the government of PW Botha to enforce “self-government” for people who were not white in South Africa. It ended up imagining a society that was markedly different in character to what most of us experienced under apartheid.

The second commemoration this week is the fourth anniversary of the massacre of 34 mineworkers who were protesting for higher wages. They were killed on Thursday 16 August 2012 on a koppie outside Marikana, in the town also known as Rooikoppies in North West province, a few kilometres outside Rustenberg.

While the formation of the UDF was a celebration of unity among those opposed to apartheid at a time when repression was intensifying in South Africa, and ultimately had a positive outcome, the Marikana massacre remains the most serious blight on post-apartheid South Africa and, four years later, no one has been charged or brought to book for the killings.

Ironically, the Marikana massacre happened a day after Trevor Manuel, then Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission, had handed over to Parliament the report on the work done by his commission, in the form of the National Development Plan. This is the third important day that we should remember this week.

The NDP went on to be adopted by most political parties and drew positive responses from civil society and business. It sketches the kind of South Africa we would all love to live in by the year 2030, “a future we would all want and deserve”, according to Manuel.

Manuel’s handover speech was littered with words such as “patriotism”, “commitment”, “goodwill”, “build” and “a better future”. The people who were killed at Marikana and the families they left behind must be wondering what Manuel was talking about.

For them, South Africa has become worse and not better over the past four years.

But in a week when there have been heightened emotions around Marikana, and the lack of action with regards to justice for those who were killed, it is important to reflect also on the UDF and the NDP. Both promised to build a non-racial society in which opportunities would be open to all.

In some ways, the UDF declaration, which formed almost a vision statement for the alliance of organisations, was written at a time when we had no idea whether we would ever overcome apartheid and what life would look like afterwards.

The NDP is a post-apartheid document and based on interviews and discussions with, according to Manuel, “thousands of South Africans from all corners of the country, from all walks of life. We received comments from individuals and organisations and engaged with government departments, provinces, municipalities, state-owned enterprises and agencies”.

 The NDP talks about tackling poverty and inequality based on faster and “faster and more inclusive economic growth, higher public and private investment, improving education and skills, greater use of technology, knowledge and innovation and better public services all leading to higher employment, rising incomes and falling inequality”. 

All of this, of course, means nothing for the victims of Marikana and their relatives. But it could mean something to others who, like them, are trapped in poverty.

It is a crying shame that, 22 years after we became a democracy and voted for the first time, the living conditions of many poor people seem to have deteriorated.

This is why there is ongoing service delivery protests throughout the country and that is why so many people broke with tradition and voted against the ANC government at the recent municipal elections.

If government is serious about addressing the ills in our society, then they could do worse than revisiting their commitment to the NDP. It is a great plan, but South Africans are known to make great plans. We often fail in the execution.

The NDP deals with just about every aspect of our society and, based on a diagnostic analysis, it provides ways in which we can act in a practical manner to make our country the great place we all know it can become.

Just imagine if, in a few years, our next Wayde van Niekerk or Caster Semenya comes from Marikana. But this will only happen if opportunities are created, in line with the vision spelled out in the NDP.

The best way to remember those who lives appeared to have been lost in vain is to build a better society, one that benefits the majority and not just the few, as our society still does at the moment. In a few years’ time, and sooner rather than later, we should be celebrating Marikana, because it should be a much improved place and its residents should no longer have to fight for decent wages.

We should try to build something positive out of the grief of Marikana, but that will not happen while the government appears not to listen to what the experts have suggested in the NDP and what many ordinary citizens are crying out for on a daily basis.

(First published as Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 20 August 2016)