Vociferous Wednesdays Round One

Vociferous Wednesdays Round One, 23 April 2014, The Book Lounge, Cape Town.

The first of what has been named “Vociferous Wednesdays”, a series of panel discussions hosted by Open Society, the Daily Maverick and the Book Lounge, brought some of South Africa’s most influential voices into a packed corner bookshop to talk about the pivotal moment in which South Africa finds itself. First on the agenda: the Public Protector’s report.

Since Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released her damning report of the multi-million rand security upgrade of the presidential homestead at state expense, the ANC has been trying to swat away her findings, to little effect. It was two weeks before Election Day, five days before Freedom Day and one day before the first meeting of a parliamentary ad-hoc committee frantically set up to consider the President’s one-page response to the report – a body that was promptly dissolved as soon as it was formed.

I had never seen the Book Lounge so full. The basement floor was host to a live televised representation of the event that was unfolding upstairs, as attendants on both levels struggled to find seating, even on the floor.

Gathered here were some of the most powerful voices in South African cultural commentary: Sam Sole of the Mail&Guardian, whose investigative unit, Amabungane, brought questions surrounding Nkandla into public discourse; Ranjeni Munusamy of the Daily Maverick, which has published some of the most eloquent commentary about the findings; the frighteningly young-looking human rights lawyer Mandisa Shandu, who is responsible for co-ordinating a youth response to the Public Protector’s report; activist Zackie Achmat and the Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. The panel was chaired by the journalist Marianne Thamm.

The next day, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela would be elected one of TIME magazine’s “100 most influential people” of 2014. As Sam Sole put it, it was her nerve, her integrity, her “sure-footedness and hard-nosed realism” that was the reason we were there that day. It was her report that ensured this watershed moment in South Africa’s history.

As each speaker presented us with a different angle on the origins, findings and implications of the report, the evening seemed to unfold as a series of powerful, tweetable soundbites. Neatly moulded for social media, they have become both the pitfall and the saving grace of today’s public discourse and debate. Designed to capture a position and save time while doing so, they are collected here:

Sam Sole: “Zuma is not an aberration”

Sam Sole began by paying tribute to three women, including Madonsela: Mandy Rousseau, who, he explains, was one of the first journalists to travel to Nkandla and begin to ask questions, and Sisonke Msimang, whose contributions to the Daily Maverick articulated much of the meaning of what had been reported. These tributes made clear the two most important roles of journalism: the gathering of facts through investigation, and an analysis of facts through reflection.

It should be obvious to any student of South African politics, he said, that the “royal palace” of Nkandla serves a purpose greater than merely being the dwelling of the President. Its excessive luxury and the state funds that were spent on it is a symbol of his perceived invincibility, his attitude that he is above the law and that it is futile to fight him. However, Sole pointed out, it would be a mistake to consider Zuma or Nkandla as exceptional, as the “ultimate betrayal” of the promise of ’94. You can just as easily substitute the Arms Deal for Nkandla, and Mbeki for Zuma.

Rather, Nkandla is a symbol of how far we have slipped from the principles that underpinned those first elections of ’94, ones that we are celebrating twenty years later in theory rather than in practice. It is one symptom of a disease that was already well underway. The imminent elections of 7 May will be an indication of how much our electorate has woken up to the abuses of power in our country.

Mandisa Shandu: “How could he not have known?”

“Why should we be concerned? What should we be concerned about?” Mandisa Shandu opened her legal account of the Nkandla scandal with the questions every young South African should be asking. She made the point that corruption counters and blatantly undermines sustainable development and economic growth. Citing the past scandals involving Shabir Shaik and the Gupta brothers, she said Nkandla has become indicative of the “type of environment we are willing to accept,” quoting the public protector in calling it a “toxic concoction of a lack of leadership, a lack of control and focused self-interest”.

She reminded us that Nkandla was declared a National Key Point in 2010, and, according to the law, anyone who owns a National Key Point is personally and financially responsible for its security measures. Referring to Madonsela’s grant that the excessive expenditure on Nkandla might have been a bona fide mistake on Zuma’s part, Shandu asserted that the President’s lack of knowledge can no longer be an excuse, and that a legitimate argument could be made on the contrary.

“How could he not have known?” she asked. How could he have been so out of touch with reality that he was unaware that his ministers were spending millions of taxpayers’ rands on his own property? And even if this was the case, why has he been so cagey about it since?

Ranjeni Munusamy: “There are 29 parties on the ballot. There are options.”

After the historical and legal accounts of the scandal, Ranjeni Musanamy asked “where to from here?”

The good news, she said, is that twenty years ago a gathering like this would not have been possible in her province, as it was still steeped in political violence. “We’ve come a long way since then,” she said.

We are seeing a more engaged electorate; people are more willing to make public political statements, and there has been both a call for and a response to a need for thought leaders of public discourse. “People have also begun to vote with their feet,” said Munusamy, referring to recent protests about e-tolls, corruption and service delivery, indicating that people have begun to vote according to their grievances instead of their identity.

Nkandla has been the hottest topic surrounding campaign reporting of late. However, said Munusamy, a “major issue” has been how little Marikana has featured, adding that the EFF has been one of the only political parties to engage with the disaster. “There seems to be a general amnesia about issues,” she said. “What was South Africa’s involvement in the Central African Republic? Why is there still not clarity on that? What about Waterkloof? Where will our energy come from in the future?” These are the questions we should be asking our national government, and these are the issues that should influence how we vote.

The level of political debate is poor, she said, and referred to The Gathering, a public debate between political parties recently hosted by the Daily Maverick, from which the ANC nearly pulled out at the last minute. “Leaders are not willing to engage with one another,” she said. “There are also high levels of emotion affecting the way people choose to vote, she said, like voting for the EFF to ‘punish’ the ANC. This is a short-sighted solution,” she said. “Vote for the EFF if you agree with their policies, but don’t vote for them to punish the ANC, because you might just be stuck with them.” She made the same point about the “vote NO” campaign recently initiated by ANC stalwarts, most notably Ronnie Kasrils. “It gives you something to do on Election Day, but then what? There are 29 parties on the ballot. There are options.”

Zackie Achmat: “I am not voting ANC this time.”

“The old order is speaking to us through the new,” said Zackie Achmat. Our unfortunate reality, he pronounced, is that the old order has absorbed the ANC. “Look at the SAPS, for example: they are not young.” The South African Police Service has inherited many of the old state policemen from the apartheid era, he argued. And nothing smacks quite so much of apartheid, as the mass shooting of striking mineworkers by state police.

Having said that, Achmat continued, it is important to remember that South Africa today is “infinitely better off than it ever was under apartheid.” It is also important to remember, as Sole pointed out, that corruption did not begin with Zuma. There is a new trend of yearning for the Mbeki years, but, said Achmat, “Mbeki authorised the Arms Deal. Dissent within the party was shut up; people were forced out. It weakened the state apparatus and that’s where Zuma’s corruption began.”

The Public Protector has shown us that an institution can be brought back to life. “We have to create a genuine alternative,” he said. The recent service delivery protests are about so much more than service delivery – they are political protests.

“I am not voting ANC this time,” said Achmat, “and I believe the President should be impeached.”

That being said, however, he added that he would not be voting DA, either. “I believe the DA has internalised the fears of the minority,” he said. “I do value the opposition, but it was the Mail&Guardian that brought us Nkandla, not the DA.”

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba: “What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a South African?”

The Archbishop hails from Makgobaskloof, where he lived before his parents moved their family to Alexandra to look for jobs. Here the housing and sanitation were so poor, there was a permanent stench. “You would go to Sandton and feel ill because you were so used to it,” he said.

Later, Alex was declared a whites-only area, and his family was forcibly removed in 1974. “I was very young. It was around that time when I asked myself ‘What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a South African?’”

Makgoba said he is still battling with these questions. The Public Protector has been a shining example of someone who is in public office and doing the best she can, maintaining her integrity despite threats and intimidation, and always staying true to her ethical code. “Let us use Nkandla as an opportunity not to navel-gaze, but as an opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘what am I going to do as a South African to ensure that the country flourishes and that there is a sense of justice?’”

The report has rekindled a sense of urgency within South Africans, he said. “Let’s pluck up the courage to ask the right questions. When the President says that he did not rob the house of the state, I want to ask, Mr. President, did you hold the ladder?”

The Vociferous Wednesdays series is a manifestation of this rekindled sense of urgency, of this need to ask the right questions. Together with the Public Protector’s report, this event is a symbol of the South African commitment to social justice, democracy and freedom of thought and expression, ideals that have underpinned a still ongoing era of struggle.

However, the discussion (and the report) also seemed to contain within it a warning: that mere debate is not enough. Rather, an attitude of scepticism and a pedantic attention to detail is necessary at all times, in all matters. In his analysis, Richard Poplak wrote of the Public Protector’s report that it will be “one of the more malleable documents in South Africa’s malleable history – pushed and pulled and yanked like the last piece of toffee at a nursery school graduation party. Thuli Madonsela (...) surely sees it as a devastating indictment of Jacob Zuma’s behaviour. The government, on the other hand, sees it as toilet paper. The ANC refuses to see it at all.”

With these various interpretations – including the positions expressed at the Book Lounge – it is clear that this malleability is already in effect. It is the same flexibility of language that has caused a sense of post-’94 apathy, an amnesia of the events of history, a misinterpretation of the wording of the law, an exploitation of people’s fears, a sense of laziness in political debate, a phenomenon of voting according to identity politics rather than legitimate grievances.

Ahead of the elections, Vociferous Wednesdays has been a necessary and timely reminder that we cannot rely on the act of debate alone, and that to be politically conscious in South Africa is to be always on one’s guard, one step ahead, always questioning – that if we’re not, the results may just be disastrous.