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Dear Professional Class, Songezo Zibi wants to talk to you

03 June 2022 - 06:14
Songezo Zibi.
Songezo Zibi.
Image: Freddy Mavunda/. File Photo

South Africa’s professional class is objectionably lazy when it comes to getting directly involved in politics.

This accusation is a central and repeated thesis in Manifesto: A New Vision for South Africa, the latest book by Songezo Zibi, a South African who cannot be labelled with a pithy tag, such is his myriad experiences in corporate South Africa and in journalism.

The book is written into the moment(s) we are living through, of us taking stock yet again of the gigantic gap between constitutional vision and material shortfalls in realising that vision.

It is an urgent and future-oriented call for all of us to rapidly co-operate across our social and economic differences, to imagine and sign up for an imminent political future. In that near future, the governing African National Congress, as well the main two opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, would be abandoned, and a new social compact forged, based on the details of the Manifesto.

Zibi’s case against the ANC is obviously correct, and perhaps even trite, unless of course you are an ANC sycophant hellbent on contesting empirical truth. He warns us against the obsession with only diagnosing the problem but inevitably he ends up spending at least half of the Manifesto doing exactly that.

This is not a bad thing. You cannot create consensus about a way forward unless there is some agreement about the existence, nature, and scope of the problems we are trying to solve for. If you only bitch and moan, which is really what he warns against more specifically, then of course the status quo won’t change. Still, a full and accurate description of the beast we are fighting is a necessary precondition for forging a new social compact.

I won’t bother summating all the empirical data that constitute a case against the ANC because, frankly, the nightmare is our daily reality. Whether we talk about nearly half of the working population not being employed or the economy projected to grow at less than 2% for the next few years, everything is stacked up against giving the ANC yet more political power to further mess up the foundations of our democracy and our society. They enabled state capture, ruined key state institutions, undermined the entire justice value chain, and became shameless in entrenching a disregard for servant leadership and responsive government.

The ANC does not care for accountability, and it is simply a vehicle for self-regarding predators to feast on hapless citizens. It is morally spent and promises of ‘organisational renewal’ are an insult to voters and citizens who have heard that slogan for the past decade already with no evidence of such. Zibi is correct that any ANC renewal, which is unlikely to happen in our lifetime (if at all), must happen outside of government. In Manifesto he details the many other ways in which the different parts of the state have almost been irreparably harmed by the ANC. That is why he urges us all to divorce the ANC. You can only disagree if you are a beneficiary of ANC loot, and one with no moral backbone therefore, or, if you are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

Zibi spends little time on the two main opposition parties and that is okay but a pity. It is okay because he is not offering us a final impossible-to-read treatise on everything about South African politics.

But it is a pity because, despite their relatively disappointing performances in the recent local government elections, the DA and the EFF still chalk up a lot of ‘talkability’, and many analysts do not spend sufficient time, as we do with the tripartite alliance, getting into the details of what is problematic about these parties. For example, someone with deep pockets wishing to fund an alternative to the ANC may open-endedly wish to know, say, whether the DA and the EFF are inherently beyond the pale, or whether they can, with some encouragement behind the scenes, be steered in different directions to improve their electoral fortunes and plans for a more just and prosperous South Africa, yet.

Nevertheless, I think Zibi is intuitively correct about the weaknesses of the DA, who are often ahistorical and obsessed with a kind of right-wing liberalism (in his characterisation of it) that does not take seriously a social democratic political model that a country like ours must adopt in light of our past, and the EFF who has an ideologically incoherent and thuggish bunch of leaders including the “boorish” deputy leader Floyd Shivambu, and the commander-in-chief Julius Malema who has an inconsistent relationship, as Zibi details, with the rule of law. This raises the question, “What next?” And this where we get back to the point of the book ultimately. After all, critiques of the ANC, the DA and the EFF write themselves. No one should buy a book that simply bemoans the ANC, the DA and the EFF.

Zibi thinks you are a big part of the problem. Inevitably, most of you reading this essay are the target of his book, falling into a demographic he calls the ‘professional class’. The book is not an academic offering, so there is no theoretical exposition of these terms, and some people might be disappointed by that. But, I think, we know who he is referring to, if we are honest with our individual selves. 

An academic register would also undermine the hidden agenda of the book which is to present Zibi himself to the public as someone willing to role-model the challenge to get off his ass and get involved in politics. If you are not poor, and not part of the working poor, you are likely a professional with some post-secondary education and are middle-class relative to the millions of indigent South Africans.

We, the ones who listen to English-medium talk shows, for example, and write ‘strongly worded letters’ to Business Day or Sunday Times, are the ones he wants to engage, when all is said and done. He thinks we wrongly do not want to get our hands dirty, and all our would-be political activism is outsourced to the poor and working-class for whom the weaknesses of the state are a matter of life and death. They must protest. We retreat into the suburbs.

He writes, “The professional class do not participate in protests or get involved in party or civic politics, yet we want a healthy, functioning democracy. This is unsustainable because democracy is a system of 'self-rule'. Things can only be as good as we actively make them to be. Our lack of meaningful participation is now evident for all to see-the country is broken and falling apart. 

 Apart from social media noise, we are effectively too distant from the cutting edge of politics to make any visible difference at all.

 The professional class yearns to participate in some form of activism, but an activism that does not involve too much personal inconvenience. Just as it outsources basic services that the state should provide, it outsources protest to the working class or the poor. The foot soldiers who get on buses to trash a retail store for offensive advertising leaflets or who are at a neighbourhood school calling out racism seem to be young and unemployed, as these events often happen during working hours.”

And, “I have come to the conclusion the destruction of the economy and state dysfunction will soon make it pointless to remain silent to protect a sheltered lifestyle of suburban residential complexes and large houses. In any event, even those who live that life are a month or two away from pennilessness in the event that they lose their jobs.

 In a way, that is the prison we have allowed to grow around us. We have been cowed into silence by the fear of losing income if we speak out either against corporate discrimination or the corruption and incompetence of the political elites. But we have arrived at the point where the advantages of silence diminish by the day as national collapse intrudes on daily life, with loadshedding, water cuts, unrepaired roads and numerous other problems that must be navigated on a daily basis.”

This is the part of Manifesto I enjoyed the most because it happens to be a view I have held for a long time and have repeated several times myself. It remains an important truth in my view. We are hopelessly bad at cross-class solidarity, myself included.

The way I have put it over the years is roughly the following. We wrongly, as the middle-class, think that we can grudgingly live outside the failing and ailing state, paying for private security, healthcare, and education. The selfish truth, before we even appeal to moral ideals like solidarity, is that our existential fate as ‘the middle-class’ is intrinsically bound up with the fortunes of the poor.

I am now bored with a half-joke I used to add at the end of this finger wagging at corporate events, to the effect that, “If we do not show cross-class solidarity, and care about the eradication of gross inequalities and poverty, then the poor will come for our bottles of Chardonnay in the suburbs!”

We are so used to literally living apart courtesy apartheid geography that we have dragged into the post-apartheid era the erroneous conviction that we stave off the worst effects of state capture inside our gated communities. We cannot do so. Passivity is not the right response to the ANC’s viciousness. We must learn to organise, immediately, and see both the ethical and business case for coming out of our gated communities to meet our fellow democratic losers, the poor and the working-class.

Manifesto, for good reason, is locked inside this positive, solution-oriented energy. However, were I to engage the author, I would have pressure-tested the assumption that there are very few reasons for the professional class to be jaded or scared of getting involved. To be fair, Zibi does mention and explore some of these, such as the governing party’s capacity to ruin the career paths and sources of income of critics.

Just as it is hard in corporate South Africa to speak out against certain injustices in the workplace without reprisal, the same is true more generally in society, in other parts of our lives. It is important to distinguish between sheer or mere apathy and genuine, reflective considerations that led someone to choose to not ‘get involved’.

Little time is devoted to the viewpoint of professionals who have, like Zibi, wrestled with the limitations of only moaning on a talk show open-line but who, unlike him, concluded that the costs of engaging politically in our democratic processes are going to be too high for them. There is complexity here that deserves a self-standing discussion.

The book is correct to urge us to act, to tell us to end our apathy as professionals, but it ought to wrestle more empathetically with the realities of our political culture, including assassinations, that make it hard to put up your hand, even if not doing so is an obviously poor choice also. The situational dilemma that arises here needs to be acknowledged as a deep one.

At the very least, from a leadership viewpoint, if Zibi wants to contest elections, he should make the psychological move of opening himself up to these fears, listening closely to professionals who are sick and tired of being berated for their legitimate concerns as hardworking taxpayers, so that he can persuade them with soft-power and not be misunderstood as wagging a moral finger, perched on a high horse sponsored by social democratic funders.

I know that that is not what he means, but if I were to advise him, it is a tonal concern he should beware of, from a political communication viewpoint. It is tempting to eviscerate the middle-class. That should not be the agenda nor misunderstood to be such.

The rest of the book is a very important demonstration of Zibi’s re-imagination of the state with plenty of recommendations for how we can try to turn around the lack of accountability that has become part of our political culture.

I cannot here rehearse each of these. Suffice to say that Zibi’s recommendations are plentiful, from a recommendation that we do away with provinces, elect our MPs based on districts that become constituencies with recall powers, to ideas about how we can jack up the economy, have a more professional civil service, etc.

Some of these are not new but some are, and will be controversial, such as the insistence that parties should generally look to put up candidates with professional skills and good academic qualifications as MPs.

Those committed to the most basic intuitions of democratic theory would be appalled to constrain political representation in this Plato-inspired elitist way, especially in a country in which many people have no opportunity to become degreed and skilled professionals, but to his credit Zibi is open to persuasion otherwise, simply demonstrating a willingness to not accept the architecture of 1994 and the constitution adopted in 1996 as gospel.

His point is that the Zuma years have shown us that we designed a system for better quality leadership, and we now need to re-design it for the reality that revolutionaries can become neo-colonial predators once in power. Manifesto is compulsory to engage because the present reality is simply unsustainable.

Apathy is music to the ears of criminals. We cannot afford to disengage. We cannot afford to retreat.  

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