Time to act… or shut up

In business jargon there is something known as a “put up or shut up” clause. It is the point during a merger when real money has to change hands or the whole deal unravels.

After reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro and seeing the splendour of the African landscape laid out before me, I realised I had reached my own “put up or shut up” point.

It was a small place to start, yes, but having not been able to help solve South Africa’s political problems while in government, I could now do something small for impoverished communities in my own backyard, says Jay Naidoo

I had to either do something to help fix what was wrong with the current system, or go on with my life and stop whining about bad governments and predatory elites.

At the end of 2013, a year before I set out on my Kilimanjaro adventure, I joined up with two of my comrades, Gino Govender and Kumi Naidoo, and we had a long reflective discussion about our hopes for the future of South Africa and the rest of the world.

During apartheid we had worked together as community activists in Durban’s Indian townships, and I know how much they care about this country. Kumi has been a social justice campaigner for most of his life, was the head of Greenpeace International for six years, and is currently the director of Africans Rising, a pan-African civil society movement.

Gino was a prominent figure in South African unions and has worked for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Cosatu, as well as globally in the mining and chemical union movements.

During our discussion we tried to put our individual experiences in a larger context, looking at them in relation to South Africa and the global village. The lessons we learnt as activists still resonated with us, and like many others, we wanted to return to our roots and work with the people again as we used to, co-creating futures with local communities.

By this time we were experienced enough to know that things are never that simple. It has been over a quarter of a century since Nelson Mandela completed his long walk to freedom, and the country he went on to lead is still in a tenuous state, full of complex politics, conflict and history that frequently generates discord.

The current state of our government may have been unforeseeable to its citizens at the dawn of democracy, but even then the cracks created by factionalism and political prejudices were starting to show in public.

The fight against apartheid, and the battles that subsequently followed it, were never simply black and white, or about black against white.

Mandela may have dumped his oppressive prison garb for colourful silk shirts, singing his melody of unity and reconciliation, but that was the furthest he could go.

He was a symbol of the “free man”, and yet there were fewer men less free than him.

His responsibilities made him a constant prisoner, his jail cell this time being one of conscience and struggle.

As the founding father of our democracy, he should be seen above all as a symbol of human endurance.

If Mandela’s example has taught us anything, it is that freedom is not an automatic privilege. It makes continuous demands, and demands continuous vigilance.

It means becoming custodians of our own lives and rejecting the notion that another Mandela will come along to save us.

It forces us to make proper historical assessments of Mandela himself – no beatifications, canonisations or shrines.

We should preserve his memory, but more importantly we need to act on it.

We can begin by acknowledging that despite the massive achievements of Mandela’s government, we still made many mistakes during our transition.

The dissolution of the apartheid regime could not be acquired without the metaphorical pound of neoliberal flesh.

In South Africa’s desire to be a player in global capitalism, we seem to have adopted the tenets of the former regime’s philosophy of power, greed and elitism.

Instead of utilising our resources for our own people, we took to selling them to the wealthiest buyer. Today, so much of this country’s land lies idle, used only for weekend excursions by absentee landlords.

The number of productive farmers is declining rapidly.

Even around rural towns, huge shantytowns mushroom, the result of farmworkers being evicted or leaving farms that are abandoned. After democracy, South Africa’s neglected or unused land should have been shared with black farmworkers.

They could have learnt about the industry from white farmers and become entrepreneurs too, benefiting from and adding value to the local food chain.

The first government of our early democracy could have fostered greater social cohesion through this strategy, literally by starting from the ground up.

Perhaps if we had negotiated with potential and former stakeholders of South African land and asked them to work together for a more prosperous society, we could have learnt to shed some of the prejudices that still exist between us.

By seeing ourselves as equal citizens with similar prerogatives, we would have had no option but to compromise.

The mythology of the “rainbow nation” should never have been imposed from the top, but built painstakingly from the messiness and disarray from below.

Today millions of South Africans could have had community-driven livelihoods through agriculture, as well as household food security, which would have eliminated malnutrition and reduced poverty enormously as the Stop Hunger campaign did in Brazil.

Local governments could have set up commodity exchanges and marketplaces for rural farmers, insisting that all public institutions, such as schools, public hospitals and correctional facilities, obtain a third of their produce from family – and community-farming schemes.

With access to a state-guaranteed credit market as well as extension services, South Africa might have had a thriving farming community providing a livelihood to millions of our citizens.

It is not too late to put this initiative into effect right now and end the monopolisation of South Africa’s wealth by an old white establishment that continues to exclude the black majority.

The disparity in wealth is so large that three individuals have as much wealth as half of the population, or about 28 million citizens.

Twenty-two years after apartheid and inequality has actually increased, with unemployment at a record high and one in four South Africans going hungry every day with little chance of getting any food.

The newly established democratic government did not change the structure of the previous regime’s economy. After the demise of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, a new class of the super-rich was born.

Big capital advanced a “don’t rock the boat” agenda, its prophets ensuring that nothing interfered in the management of their large corporations. To keep the wealth they had plundered safe, our government gave them permission to take it overseas and legally disinvest from South Africa.

A policy of black economic empowerment was promoted which made a small number of people spectacularly wealthy rather than lifting a large number out of poverty. Meanwhile, the huge black underclass continued to grow and its access to wealth and land remained minuscule.

During my tenure as minister without portfolio in Mandela’s government, it was my job to reconcile the aims of the 1955 Freedom Charter – which demanded the restoration of land to all citizens – with the developmental aims of the RDP.

But there were those in the Government of National Unity, already sold on a neo-liberal agenda, who believed the egalitarian approach to be a pipe-dream. Their argument was that disrupting prevailing economic orthodoxy would cause economic chaos, and that the new South Africa rather had to find ways of adapting to it.

So we adapted and became “normal”, our remarkable, landmark negotiation for democracy in 1994 undermined by the same practices that strengthened the corrupt apartheid regime and those who had amassed fortunes by collaborating with it.

Following my journey up Kilimanjaro in 2014, 20 years after the breakdown of the RDP, I decided it was time to go back to the drawing board. With my comrades Naidoo and Govender, I returned to my roots as a community organiser and began a non-profit enterprise called EarthRise Trust, which sets out to cultivate South Africa’s greatest resource, its land, for its people.

To begin with, we purchased a 273-hectare parcel of territory in the east of the Free State next to the Lesotho border.

The area where we began working was Rustler’s Valley, home to the local Naledi village.

It was a small place to start, yes, but having not been able to help solve South Africa’s political problems while in government, I could now do something small for impoverished communities in my own backyard.

Years of union campaigning and lessons from some of the developing world’s most impoverished societies had taught me that this is often the best place to start.

Perhaps I would even go one step further and turn this project into a model of self-sustainability that could be scaled up in other communities.

I have witnessed many times how progress begins with just a few people working conscientiously to achieve.

Jay Naidoo was Cosatu general secretary (1985-1993) and a cabinet minister (1994-1999). He has worked for the United Nations and other international organisations pursuing social justice and human dignity. He is a Mo Ibrahim Foundation board member and trustee of the EarthRise Trust. His new book Change (Penguin) retails at R200