The Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist, in partnership with Exclusive Books | Songezo Zibi on 'Manifesto: A New Vision for South Africa'
The book serves as an outline of how South Africa's democratic ideals can be realised
The winner should demonstrate the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion; elegance of writing; and intellectual and moral integrity.
We spoke to Songezo Zibi about his book, Manifesto: A New Vision for South Africa (Pan Macmillan), shortlisted for the non-fiction award.
Manifesto succinctly summarises the purpose of your book. Did you have working titles in mind and was the inclusion of a subtitle a given?
I avoid thinking of a working title when I write a book because I end up writing to suit the working title instead of what is in my mind. Towards the end of the writing process the publishers and I started discussing the title. In that discussion, I considered having what is now the subtitle as the title.
In your acknowledgments you disclose that "[t]his book has been in the making for a long time, but I only found out when I began to write it. The views and ideas I share herein are born out of decades of personal and professional experiences, beginning from when I was a mere child.” Please outline your lived experience of the dehumanising and devastating effects of apartheid regarding family and friendships.
The first time I experienced a death in my family was in 1982 when my uncle Vuyani was killed by the apartheid security forces. It devastated my grandparents and left a scar on my life. In subsequent years, more and more people I love were to die in the same way, including my uncle Sizwe, who was killed and thrown off a moving train on the East Rand. My friend Tando Mthembu was also killed by the security forces in 1993, during my first year of varsity. From their lives I learnt that democracy is precious and worth fighting for, and that we must never take it for granted. It is supposed to be the instrument through which we make dignified lives possible for people.
I must also say democracy blessed me with the chance to work in the real economy for large companies, get involved with community work, national policy development and to travel the world. All these experiences were invaluable in thinking about and writing the book.
In the introduction you write "... so we were introduced to a long-standing and persistent South African disease: diversion”. This sentiment is echoed in the chapter Political Decay, referring to “five symptoms of political decay exhibited during [Jacob] Zuma’s almost two terms in office”. Please expand on your use of “disease” and “symptoms” in relation to the country’s democratic wellbeing.
I use the term “disease” to show that it is not the natural order of things to turn out the way they did, and continue to. It is abnormal and it manifests in different ways (symptoms). This can also be “cured” when we take responsibility for cleansing our politics and system of such a sickness.
How did you go about structuring the contents chapter-wise?
I essentially wrote in two parts. Diagnosis and Solutions. The chapter Lessons from America is to show that we are not unique, that democracies can go horribly wrong. You have to constantly review and renew them or they slowly die.
Every democracy is a journey. Ours began 30 years ago and was the outcome of a peace settlement. We are no longer in conditions of conflict. We have to ask new questions about whether this current formula works
Has extensively writing about/engaging with South African politics over a number of years ever left you despondent about the future of our democratic country? Or, inversely, with a sense of hope?
I am more despondent than not, although there are times of optimism. I fear that South Africans are losing faith in democracy because of our toxic and self-centred politics. There is now a tendency for people to ask for a “benevolent dictatorship”. That is because of the dysfunction we experience. However, we cannot lose our democracy. What comes next would be disastrous for all of us.
Do you believe that writing from a first-person perspective holds more gravitas than third-person narration?
It depends on the purpose of the book. I think a book such as Manifesto demands writing in the first person. I cannot show how deeply I am affected by the issues I write about when this is expressed in the third person. I wrote this book as a citizen, not an analyst.
In chapter two, Lessons from America, you state that “South Africa’s democracy cannot be sustained if we leave it as is”. Please comment on this statement with regards to the relatively young nature of our democratic system.
Every democracy is a journey. Ours began 30 years ago and was the outcome of a peace settlement. We are no longer in conditions of conflict. We have to ask new questions about whether this current formula works. For example, our electoral system was put in place to ensure racial minorities do not feel excluded from our new system. Do those fears still exist to the same extent? Should we stick to it or should we change it now, since it has led to almost zero accountability.
You define democracy as a “system of self-government”. Please comment on your critique of the clichéd interpretation of this definition as “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
People in South Africa appear to genuinely think that democracy is the terrain of political parties. The opposite is true. For example, school governing bodies with their elections are as important as municipal, provincial or national elections. These are all opportunities for people to make democratic choices. But you find people do not participate as they should because they do not appreciate the importance of directly influencing decisions. Political parties have become unaccountable proxies and agents of people they hardly ever consult.
What impression do you want readers to take away after reading the book?
I want them to put the book down and get up and participate in politics as an ordinary citizen. Democracy does not work if most of us are passive, sitting at home. Anyone who is not sure how to do this can contact me.
In what way do you think the book “illuminates truthfulness”?
I have done my best to [offer] as many objective facts as possible without making it a number-fest, but I have also invested a lot of my personal story in it to show I am not being a mere commentator, but someone who has experienced and continues to experience the things I write about.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.