Now is the time for real social transformation
President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address left me, like many others, excited and hopeful. There was a sense of possibility in the air, the possibility of a better future. It was wonderful to enjoy these moments after such a long period of pessimism. It was a relief when President Ramaphosa approached civil society as a partner and transformed the previously rather hostile attitude of the government into one of partnership and collaboration. I can only imagine the masses of emails the Presidency has received from civil society organizations committing to partnership and offering their area of expertise and methodology in support of the President’s call.
South African civil society is a diverse and large sector with over 85,000 registered NPOs. The common denominator is, in large part, the improvement of conditions in society. Yet it appears that the impact towards transformative change in South Africa is small. It doesn’t take much to realize that over 350 years of oppression and deliberate dehumanization have brought South Africa to where it is, with the current state apparatus captured and eroded by capitalist and rapacious individuals. And of course, since last week, the hope of walking on a new path.
While the renewal of political leadership after the Zuma years is important, the task before us is not their responsibility alone. As much as we all admire the new president and the expected changes he must bring, I think we need honest conversations within civil society about the massive resources (human, financial and social) that make up this sector, d on the one hand, and the lack of transformative change on the other. The development industry is booming globally and in South Africa. TED talks, webinars, new ICT solutions, fundraising seminars, development consultants and a growing number of NPOs are part of the new normal.
If the time is right, I think the conversation about change needs to start by differentiating between development and transformation. Development is the global paradigm for change. If we take the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the World Bank Development Indicators, the African Union Agenda or South Africa’s National Development Plan, they all speak to the development paradigm. What the concept of development seems to imply is that there is a certain direction for change, apparently reinforcing strategies and programs that seem very similar across the world to achieve the desired results of growth and development.
Social transformation is a less popular and difficult term because it speaks of deep, complete and radical change. He talks about disrupting, interrupting and restarting. He challenges us to think upside down and upside down. It requires brutal honesty and clarity. South Africa desperately needs transformation to fight centuries of institutionalized oppression and dehumanization.
In the South African context, this requires deliberate acts to counter ongoing historical injustices, captured and corrupt state institutions and actively participate in building a transformed society. Even though the President has promised that under this leadership, state capture will be eradicated, we must push and be vigilant. Social transformation is the prerogative of citizens and needs a servant and effective state to support it, the one that was promised by President Ramaphosa during SONA.
The state should simply play a service role on the agenda of the citizen of this country. A separate transformation from development is also vital to ensure that this transformational project will not be captured by Western or capitalist ideas of development and the belief that resources and dressing up a problem or band-aid will provide the solution. While foreign companies or governments may hold the resources and funding for a transformational agenda, it should be clear from the outset that they can participate, join and enable the process, but never own or determine the results.
What it requires is to work for a country and, ultimately, a continent that offers the possibilities of a dignified life for all. It means a country where no one is discriminated against because of their race, color, sex or beliefs and where everyone has the freedom to access opportunities. This means not repeating cycles of poverty, but focusing on innovation and building bold solutions. This will require going against the mainstream approaches of mainstream philanthropic or development institutions.
Moving towards a transformational agenda, which puts decency and dignity at the center, will enable human possibility or, in other words, ensure that each person can walk high in their own stature. This will require a commitment to focus on quality, sustainability, excellence and efficiency. It will also require being bold and creating innovative, world-class interventions. The protection of territories and the single thought of their perpetuation cannot be authorized.
The vision that civil society must have is to activate social transformation by designing bold, world-class solutions that understand the complexity and intersectional nature of the problems to be solved. DM
Carolin Gomulia is Head of Strategy and Fundraising and Communications and Advocacy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.