The State of the State debate brought together Noor Nieftagodien, Ivor Chipkin and Ashley Westaway to discuss the current state of South Africa. While all three speakers had previously shared their work and research about local politics to Think!Fest audiences, the debate allowed them to discuss ideas and compare thoughts on where we stand as a country. Pertinent and challenging discussion points were put forward and engaging conversation resulted.
Here, we take a look at a few of the questions we need to be asking, as well as how the speakers responded.
If we want to assess the healthiness of how we live, where do we look to make these assessments?
“There is no one particular place,” says Westaway. If one tries to hear and assimilate as much as they can, they can get an idea of what is happening. The data and news from the last six months have been quite worrying. The state of the state is considerably weaker than 12 months ago, and Zuma’s term has been bad for the country.
Chipkin is less pessimistic than Westaway and the media. “In international comparative terms, we’re just a baby,” he says. Other states have had longer time to develop and we need to qualify the worry we have with how young we are. There are some worrying things but we need to moderate our sense of worry and panic. Having worked with state bureaucracy, he speaks about how we can judge the state we are in from administration, as so many daily experiences have to do with admin and record keeping. “Things are not great, but they are not as bad as you imagine” he asserts.
Nieftagodien’s view is based on a historical understanding of the state. He says he does not usually take the middle approach but will do so here. “How we frame the debate question is appropriate,” he says, “but we quickly fall into a binary”. The media engagement with this issue is worrying because of the lack of depth in the analysis, and the media’s preoccupation with Zuma. “Zuma is not the sum total of the state,” he says.
Nieftagodien also believes there is value in looking at how people are talking to each other now. We are in a post-reconciliation phase in the country and previously, the focus of conversations was on reconciliation. Yet the grounds on which we have conversations have been shifting, as signalled by the #RhodesMustFall conversations. People are now having difficult conversations and asking tough questions. In order to judge the state of SA, we need to look at these conversations as well as how ordinary people encounter and engage with the state. These encounters are usually experiences of the state’s attempts to control, or experiences of violence and coercion.
We want good governance, not violence. Why are we seeing violence and reaction from people?
According to Chipkin, there is a crisis happening in democracy and in our political culture. The idea of the rainbow nation is in crisis and there are signs that democracy is in trouble. However, he sees protests as administrative events rather than political events, and that the violence is a violence of bureaucratic and administrative failure. “We are not a failed state,” he says. “It is not as if nothing is happening”. There are functions provided but they are being provided in a way that seems unfair, unreliable and unequal, he explains. Having worked at the South African Revenue Services (SARS), he found that people often said that SARS was corrupt, even when evidence showed that it was not. He soon realised that to speak of corruption was a language for talking about unfairness. This is administrative violence and we need to distinguish it from political violence.
All three speakers mentioned the apartheid Bantustans in previous talks. How does this relate to the state of the state?
According to Nieftagodien, the North West and Limpopo have had more Bantustans, central to which were traditional authorities. The first democratic elections in 1994 meant the end of Bantustans but not the end of the people and the cultures of governance.
An audience member comments on the fact that the current design of townships mirror apartheid townships and have the character of temporary residences. We seem to have carried over from apartheid the mindset that this is how things should be.
Nieftagodien agrees, saying that one of the most problematic issues is a continuation of the apartheid housing and geographical situation. Townships have no parks and public spaces, and we should actually campaign for public spaces where children can play.
Another comment from the audience touches on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, suggesting that perhaps the TRC covered up things that we need to be addressing now.
Westaway responds, saying that interestingly enough, art historians have been more critical of the TRC than historians, and they have argued that because the focus of the TRC was on major events, it became a whitewashing of the project of apartheid. The normalcy of apartheid was looked over, allowing certain things to be perpetuated now. “I think what’s needed is a broad societal engagement in a critical way with the state,” says Westaway.
Nieftagodien says there is the idea that we need to put the past behind us in order to move forward, and there is a problem with this discourse. What happened at Marikana was an opportunity to open up conversation and perhaps address things the TRC didn’t, but we completely failed at that.
Anthea Garman, convenor of Think!Fest, rounds up the discussion, asking which leaders we can look to for guidance in the way forward.
For Westaway, it is Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University. “He has indicated a willingness to position the university much closer to the town,” he says, and that is admirable.
Chipkin believes that Ivan Pillay, former Deputy Commissioner of SARS, is a true leader for his work behind the scenes which went unacknowledged.
Nieftagodien concludes, saying that his idea of a leader to emulate does not have a name, but it would be “the great South African woman”.
The full conversation, which includes many other aspects of assessing our state, can be found below.