Letter to the President of the Republic of South Africa and the Speaker of Parliament towards a national convention on unity by Bantu Holomisa, MP - UDM President (22 February 2007)

Your Excellency

The recent State of the Nation address, debate and reply refers.

The history of oppressive regimes up until the current democratic South Africa is well-documented. When we attained our freedom in 1994, we vowed as a nation to change the laws and dispensations to ensure that South Africa would be a place of equality for all citizens. We further pledged to address the imbalances, inequalities and backlogs of the past. Indeed, the people of South Africa were in unison on these issues. There has been progress in some areas, especially on producing new legislation. However, South Africans have shown sharp differences of opinion on how to implement the details of what all had agreed on. These differences range across a wide range of topics, such as economic reform, affirmative action, land distribution and the criminal justice system amongst others. Even seemingly simple decisions like the creation of new municipal demarcations deteriorated into divisive differences and a lack of consensus and agreement.

To an outside observer it would appear as if we are losing an opportunity where we could have sustained the consensus-building and sense of unity that helped us to achieve our transition to democracy in a relatively peaceful manner. Indeed, that observer, gets worried when he or she sees headlines that suggest that people are leaving the country in droves because they are scared of affirmative action and crime; similarly that observer would be concerned by the manner in which some South Africans are resorting to violent protests in order to draw attention to their plight. General lawlessness and defiance of the authorities, would seem to be the order of the day to such an outside observer. Again, that observer would note the violent crime in this country and that many criminals show no respect for the value of life, killing people without reason, as well as the widespread violence against women and children. That observer would witness the big HIV/AIDS debate. The outside observer would see that the role of Traditional Leadership and Religion in making policy and legislation is not clearly defined, especially around emotional issues. The badmouthing of South Africa abroad by South Africans, would no doubt also be noticed by such an observer, as would be the looting of state resources by a select few. Finally, that observer would also have witnessed the lack of strategy to implement policies that would have improved the lives of all.

The internal political squabbles which we have witnessed during the first decade of democracy has at times been an obstacle to the process of uniting the nation, instead it appeared as if we had abandoned the original agenda of improving the quality of life of all. For many it seems as if "the battle of the stomach" - the quest for personal advancement - has superseded any sense of community and the advancement of the public good. Unfortunately this cancer is affecting the very first line of service delivery at local and provincial government level.

People who admired our resourcefulness as a country would have thought that the levels of poverty in our country would have been lowered drastically by now.

Whilst we appreciate that our freedom has allowed South African companies to expand abroad, and hence some are now listed on the London and New York Stock Exchanges. However it is disconcerting when senior management in some of those companies say that it is risky to invest in South Africa. One then begins to wonder whether their reasons for relocating was economically-driven or a fear of the new status quo.

Perhaps it is for these reasons that the country is being called upon to deepen debate. We have noted that it is the new theme for Parliament and indeed President Mbeki said in his State of the Nation address: "We must today renew our pledge, to speak together of freedom, to act in partnership to realise the happiness for all that should come with liberty, to work together to build a South Africa defined by a common dream, to say, together, in action - enough of everything that made our country to contain within it and represent much that is ugly and repulsive in human society!"

President Mbeki in that same address also said: "In this year of the 60th anniversary of the Doctors Pact of leaders of African and Indian communities (AB Xuma, GM Naicker and Yusuf Dadoo), the 30th anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko and the 20th anniversary of the visit to Dakar by Afrikaner intellectuals to meet the ANC, the issue of our variety of identities and the overarching sense of belonging to South Africa needs to be better canvassed across society, in a manner that strengthens our unity as a nation. Further, on this the 30th anniversary of the banning of The World and The Weekend World newspapers, we are duty-bound to ask the question - have we all fully internalised our responsibility in building social cohesion and promoting a common sense of belonging, reinforcing the glue that holds our nation together!

In other words, measures required to improve social cohesion cannot be undertaken by government alone. We must together as South Africans speak of freedom from want and from moral decay, and work to attain the happiness that comes with it."

In response to this I said in the debate on the State of the Nation:

"The President's appeal for unity and Madam Speaker's theme for the year of deepening the debate, indicate that we as South Africans have not yet found each other on a number of issues. We normally notice this with some of the emotional and controversial laws that we have passed in this House. Sometimes I get the feeling that we are leaving our population behind. Perhaps the electoral system we have, plays a role in this. To deepen this discussion it will have to be inclusive as much as possible. Perhaps it might not be a bad idea to form a steering committee composed of all South African stakeholders to begin to identify areas where we need to deepen the debate as a nation. Such a process should culminate in a National Convention where resolutions would be taken. Those that require the attention of this House can come to this House; those that require the attention of the Executive will be referred to the Executive. This is the type of action that I believe is required, we cannot simply talk of unity and deeper debates if it doesn't result in something concrete. I'm sure there are many issues that the public want us to debate and address. For instance, the floor-crossing that was introduced merely to accommodate the ex-National Party political orphans. Yet it has taken years for the public's views to be heard, and it will take years more for the debate to actually happen and the necessary changes to be made.

Why do we as South Africans yearn for unity when it should go without saying that we are all united in our citizenship and commitment to democracy? Because we live in a divided country. We have a history of being divided, and today we continue to find not only some of the old divisions, but also new divisions.

Black versus white. Rich versus poor. Healthy versus sick. Rural versus Urban. Suburb versus slum. Victim versus criminal. Employed versus jobless. Government versus people. This should not be so, and it need not be that way.

With all these divisions it is easy to fall into a defensive mentality, and to adopt an attitude of "us versus them". This is the reason why so much of our national debate has become trapped in the same shallow clichés and stereotypes."

President Mbeki endorsed this suggestion in his reply to the debate: "Perhaps we should together take a deliberate decision to institute a national process that will help us to identify the issues that we would determine as the matters on which we should act in partnership, inspired by a common patriotism that would enable us to build the cross-party partnership that would be united by a voluntary national consensus.  Consistent with this reflection, the Honourable Bantu Holomisa said, "Perhaps it might not be a bad idea to form a steering committee composed of all South African stakeholders to begin to identify areas where we need to deepen the debate as a nation. Such a process should culminate in a National Convention where resolutions would be taken. This is the type of action that I believe is required; we cannot simply talk of unity and deeper debates if it doesn't result in something concrete."

Parliament will, in its wisdom, decide what to do with this suggestion. If Parliament, which represents the will of the people, constituted such a steering committee from within its ranks, and it asked me to suggest three domestic topics that might be addressed, I would suggest that these should be:
* social transformation, including the important issues of national and social cohesion, and a national value system
* the eradication of poverty
* the reduction and eradication of crime, especially crimes against the person.

I would add this note of caution, that the participants in the process that the Honourable Bantu Holomisa proposed should not set themselves short timeframes. I would say that they would have to learn to be patient. I would say that they should respect what the Honourable Pieter Mulder said, that we do not know one another.

I would advise that there would be no difficulty whatsoever in getting everybody to agree that there must be social transformation; poverty must be eradicated; and crime must be defeated, totally and permanently.

Similarly I would advise that the steering committee should expect that the seeming unanimity about these outcomes would, certainly in the first instance and whatever else would happen later, dissolve into a fractious wrangle even about the definition of the issues about which there was apparent unanimity, to say nothing about what would have to be done practically to respond to these challenges.

But I would also advise the steering committee to pay the closest attention to what the people say, regardless of what many of us in this House think about our country and government, and indeed about ourselves as the people's oracle. I say this to recall what various Honourable Members, who actually work among the people, said about what the people say about where they have been, where they are, and where they know they will be. "

I would therefore suggest as a start, that Parliament, under the leadership of Madam Speaker, should establish a parliamentary steering committee, whose tasks should be to identify and invite all other stakeholders which are outside Parliament to form a National Steering Committee. It is that National Steering Committee which could begin to draw up an agenda and map the way towards such a National Convention; in so doing they will have to call for submissions from the society at large and not merely the established institutions. While we appreciate that we as MPs might believe that we represent all constituencies, we might be wrong and for that reason we should consider a Convention that stands free from Parliament. Yes MPs should participate, but the Convention must create a new open forum where people can contribute to the debate on an equal footing.

The National Steering Committee will have to decide upon an adequate person or institution that can chair the National Convention and its plenary sessions. In approaching this matter we should be non-partisan and be accommodative to everybody, because the issues that require debate must not be hindered by ideological differences.

Whilst we understand that this process might take a long time, it would be good that whatever decisions are taken at the National Convention, the Steering Committee should prioritise some of the things that require urgent attention by either Parliament or Government.

We hope that such a National Convention can take us towards tangible results. The President of the country says we must debate pressing issues, but nine out of ten times it falls on deaf ears, because the legal and institutional mechanisms don't exist to allow such debates. For instance, the President has said that we should all debate the succession issue, but we cannot because it is one political party and not the people who elects the President. So we must from the outset be committed to real debate leading to real decisions that will be implemented.

In the end we need to reach a point where we have consensus on our joint challenges, so that we develop commonly accepted programmes to deal with issues that have already been raised by the public such as fighting crime, corruption, racism and poverty. This process will address the concerns of many South Africans and lessen the fear and despondency that many feel.

One hopes that after this debate we as a nation will emerge as a united front against anything that would threaten the advances we have made since attaining our freedom.

HB Holomisa, MP
UDM President

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