Confronting challenges in South Africa's democratic journey

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Panel discusses challenges in South Africa's democratic journey
[PIC CREDIT: Luyanda Dube]
Panel discusses challenges in South Africa's democratic journey [PIC CREDIT: Luyanda Dube]

By Ephreeda Banda


On 9 May 2024, the historic Albany Museum in Makhanda, South Africa hosted a significant event organised by Rhodes University's Political and International Studies Department, along with the School of Journalism and Media Studies and Makhanda Legends. The gathering brought together intellectuals, activists, and community leaders to discuss "The Erosion of Democratic Institutions and the Future of Knowledge."

Advocate Vusi Pikoli, the keynote speaker, reflected on South Africa's 30-year journey since democracy. He praised the improvements in infrastructure, such as better access to water and electricity for marginalised communities. Yet, Pikoli also acknowledged ongoing economic disparities, emphasising the wide gap in wealth as indicated by the Gini coefficient. He celebrated the progress but urged recognition of the mistakes along the way.

Politics honours student Ayabulela Mtshungwana spoke on the need to use the current constitutional framework to tackle issues like land reform and ethnic tensions. He suggested amending specific constitutional clauses to allow land expropriation without compensation, highlighting the potential for ethnic conflicts under the current law.

The discussion also covered the education system's failures, particularly its inability to fulfil promises of free quality education. Mtshungwana critiqued the judiciary, questioning the lack of female chief justices and citing perceived political interference in their appointments. He pointed out that despite the recommendation of Chief Justice Mandisa Maya, the president appointed Chief Justice Zondo, who had fewer endorsements.

Professor Siphokazi Magadla, Head of Rhodes University’s Political and International Studies Department emphasised the underappreciated role of Africans in the making of the South African constitution, which is often understood to have been imported from elsewhere. She recalled the significance of the appointment of the Constitutional Committee of the African National Congress by then president Oliver Tambo on the 8th January 1986, as detailed in Andre Odendaal’s book, Dear Comrade President: Oliver Tambo and the Foundations of South Africa’s s Constitution She emphasized that Politics, Law and Journalism students need to be taught about the key role of people like Pallo Jordaan, Albie Sachs, Brigdet Mabandla, Penuel Maduna, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, Ruth Mompati, Vusi Pikoli and others,  in the making of the South African constitution. She argued that these intellectual and liberation fighters belong to a long and proud African intellectual tradition that deserves to be theorized and celebrated.

Former Makana mayor Mzukisi Mpahlwa and Advocate Pikoli both stressed the negative impact of corruption on growth, underlining the need for meritocracy and warning against nepotism and political favouritism.

The event concluded with Archbishop Nkosinathi Ngesi calling on all present to pay respect to the fallen hero Makhwezi Mtulu, who was recently presented with the Order of Mendi for Bravery by the President of South Africa. His award was received posthumously on his behalf by his sister, Mama Thobeka Madyibi. This was followed by a performance of the hymn composed by Tiyo Soga "Lizalise Idinga Lakho," symbolising the resilience and unity of the South African people.

Reflecting on the discussions, the lecture highlighted the mixed experiences of South Africa's democratic journey, marked by progress, setbacks, and continuous challenges. The insights from the gathering were seen as a beacon of hope and a call to action for a more equitable and just society.

This dialogue went beyond academic discussion, resonating with the everyday experiences of South Africans and reaffirming the significance of civic engagement in shaping the nation's future. As South Africa moves into its fourth decade of democracy, the event's discussions inspire a renewed commitment to the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality for all.