Voices of ordinary people matter in a just society

IT CAN be depressing to be a South African nowadays. Almost every day there are more revelations of corruption and misdoing, especially among some senior government officials in collusion with certain business people.

There are many sceptics who feel South Africa is on a slippery slope and that, inevitably, we are going to end up in the situation where many other African countries have found themselves 20 or so years after liberation or independence.

If one allows one's world view to be informed only by what one reads on the Internet or in newspapers, then it is quite understandable that many South Africans would want to slit their wrists because, surely, there is no hope.

The mistake many people make is that they think the government equates with South Africa. Yes, the government is an important part of South African society, but it is not the only part. There are many other parts of South African society that give me real hope for the future.

I interact almost daily with people who are quietly making a difference to our society, through helping their neighbours, helping to educate children or helping children improve their education. Sometimes, this work is done as part of companies’ corporate social responsibility programmes but, often, it is done out of the goodness of someone's heart.

I derive most hope from what some would euphemistically term “ordinary people”. These are the people who politicians often take for granted and who carry on with life despite the shenanigans of politicians, and others, and not because of it.

South Africans have shown over the years that we can be resilient and formidable. We are known for being able to overcome huge odds and being able to unite based on the fact that we are such a diverse society.

In this month, when we celebrate our heritage, it is important to remember where we come from so we can determine where we want to go. Not too long ago, South Africa was ruled by people who believed in legalised oppression and exploitation. They successfully disenfranchised millions of South Africans and tried to use the vast resources of this country to benefit only a small minority. They ruled on the basis of exclusion, rather than inclusion. Any attempts to question their rule, and propose more viable and human alternatives, met with suppression.

People who compare South Africa today with what happened under apartheid have never lived under apartheid or have forgotten what is was like to live under apartheid. To say it was rough is an understatement.

Like many others who share my background of anti-apartheid activism, I am seriously disappointed with what is happening in government. It appears someone has declared a free-for-all in terms of corruption and many people with access to the public purse have decided to accept this invitation.

There are ways of dealing with corruption and these require leadership from the highest levels. The first way is to expose corruption wherever it exists. Corruption does not only exist in government; and government officials who are corrupted must surely have counterparts in private business who are aiding and abetting their corruption.

But there are many cases of corruption that do not involve government. One can think here of collusion between companies in industries where there are virtual monopolies.

The media has a powerful role to play in exposing corruption but the media cannot do this alone. They need honest people with a conscience to come forward to inform them of where abuse is taking place. Without whistle-blowers, many things will never be brought to the attention of the public.

The other way of dealing with corruption is to make sure that those who are corrupt face the consequences. Too often, we are outraged at some revelation of corrupt activity only to move on the next day when confronted by another brazen act of corruption. In this process, too many people are able to get away with their criminal activities.

Corruption must be seen as a crime and described as such. It is stealing, often from the “ordinary people” who depend on the government and others with resources to make a difference in their lives.

What gives me hope for our country is that there are millions of South Africans who have decided we are not going to go the way of many other African countries. These people are united in civil society formations and are making their voices heard.

These groups include many people who have lived through apartheid and understand that we can no longer have a government that does not listen to the people.

I am confident that, just like we defeated apartheid, we will be able to defeat corruption and move forward to making South Africa the great country we know it can become. What this will require is a reminder to those in government and business that they are not the only people who matter. The “ordinary people” matter as much and should make their voices heard.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 2 September 2017)