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Putting people first must be a priority for blinkered politicians

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Eunice Khuzwayo, 72, casts her vote at Habiyana Primary school in Kwamakhutha, South of Durban. We need a South Africa that works for all its people, especially the vast majority who feel excluded and simply cannot participate as equals in the land of their forebears, the writer says. – Picture: Tumi Pakkies / Independent Newspapers / Taken May 29, 2024

By Saths Cooper

We’ve arrived at a momentous time when celebrating 30 years of democracy is all but forgotten.

So overpowering, yet immensely promising, has the last fortnight been that almost all of us – those who voted abroad, those who voted in the country from May 27 to 29, those who did not vote who are largely African, and those who have felt profoundly excluded and who decided not to bother to register to vote, again largely African – are consumed by what will our party political leaders and their closest advisers and avid supporters do.

To coalesce or not to coalesce is on everyone’s lips, meaning different things to different people. The claims and counter-claims, the screech of (those who should know better?) “We will not work with …”, when it’s quite evident that those who voted clearly decided the outcome.

Our people have spoken as loudly as they democratically can, yet somehow they still seem to be not listened to by those who punt their own interests.

Our people want unity of purpose – if that’s possible in the Babylonian Tower that comprises the litany of political parties who make up the fastest-growing sector in our troubled country – and a restoration of hope that we can forge a nation that’s stable, away from the politically charged divisions that have caused us to be in the cul-de-sac that seems to confront us.

Most of us want a South Africa that works for all its people, especially the vast majority who feel excluded and simply cannot participate as equals in the land of their forebears.

They cannot bear the helplessness and burden of their children often going hungry, their physical, intellectual and psychological development being stunted, while their dignity as adults is impugned in the flagrant way that only they and their children understand.

The elite have become more removed from and more indifferent to the ever-growing distance between themselves and the rest of us.

The vast majority of us want our rightful place in the sun. We want to be enabled to get on with our lives in a climate that affirms and cherishes us. We want to be assured that there is socio-political stability, where we can thrive and contribute to the next decade of our young democracy.

We want the plethora of mostly narrow political interests to be subsumed by the greater good of the greater number so that nobody is threatened, ignored or made to feel lesser by the fortunate few. We don’t want to remain in the miasma of hopelessness and be made to feel helpless by the high and mighty few who have untrammelled control over nearly all aspects of our, often miserable, existence.

We want the ability to do for ourselves what the few have taken for granted, and who, at very trying times like these, tend to look after their own limited interests, conveniently denying, even forgetting, the rest of us.

Desperate times don’t always require desperate measures. This historic moment requires overcoming self-interest, blinkered positions, tiresome posturing and public egos that most of our stadiums cannot contain.

South Africa needs leadership which is able to place the interests of the greater number above those of their own individual/group/party beliefs, status, wealth and other self-serving purposes.

If one is unable to or cannot lead now, when our country cries out for such bold and principled leadership that rises to the occasion, one should not stand in the way of progress.

The depth and capacity of leadership we need now should be fully able to confront the mistakes of the past, engaging in real transition from the notorious underpinnings we need to leave behind. South Africa deserves leaders who take careful note of our terrible past, the mediocrity and disgrace that’s dominated our landscape, and who will not hold us to ransom.

We need that calibre and strength of leadership that leads from the front, that takes us all with them. We cannot suffer the Afrikaans definition of a “predikant”: Show the way, but don’t go there yourself!

We just cannot continue to bend over backwards, as we fell over ourselves to do since the unbanning of our organisations on February 2, 1990, the release from Robben Island of the last of the political prisoners on May 11, 1991 and the type of deals that were cooked up behind closed doors, which ushered in a compromised political system that serves just the few.

This period, importantly, demands public accountability and an inclusive national engagement that includes all sectors, especially civil society, to create an ongoing barometer of the critical change across the board that will undergird a better trajectory, than the one that brought us to this pass.

If we were prepared to forgive our oppressors, working with them, granting them immunity, releasing their killers such as De Kock, Derby-Lewis and Walusś, we can surely work with our political opponents and usher in a period of social certainty and economic security.

Bishop Manas Buthelezi said to me soon after I was released from Robben Island, when we were creating the National Forum: “I cannot say I won’t speak to you unless you accept my version of the Bible!”

Let’s not elevate as principle that which suits our own thinking, nor should the trauma of betrayal limit the future that beckons. This June 16 can be a turning point, as it was for apartheid.

Prof Saths Cooper is the President of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former political prisoner and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists.