Wednesday 16 April 2014

From Standing for the Truth to Standing Up for Good Governance

Twenty-five years ago, religious leaders gathered regularly in Cape Town for both silent protests on the steps of St George's Cathedral and public processions through the streets of the city to call for an end to apartheid and the beginning of negotiations to bring about democracy.

The protests were conducted under the banner of what the leaders called the “Standing for the Truth Campaign” and they culminated in the more widely-based Defiance Campaign of 1989, in which thousands of people defied apartheid laws in the weeks before President F W de Klerk took power.

Five months later, Nelson Mandela was released and political organisations were unbanned. Negotiations followed soon after, resulting four years later in the inauguration of President Mandela, then two years after that, the adoption of our first democratic Constitution.

Chapter Nine of that founding document of our new nation established a number of state institutions whose purpose is to “strengthen constitutional democracy in the Republic” by promoting good governance. Among them are the office of the Auditor-General, whose jobs include auditing and reporting on the finances of all national and provincial state departments and administrations, and the office of the Public Protector, who is tasked “to investigate any conduct in state affairs, or in the public administration in any sphere of government, that is alleged or suspected to be improper or to result in any impropriety or prejudice...”

Twenty years after our political liberation, it is right to celebrate the gains of democracy: the right to vote for all, our achievements in housing, in some of our infrastructural programmes and in repealing the apartheid laws that demeaned us. But the governing party's responses to recent reports of the Auditor-General and the Public Protector threaten not to strengthen but to undermine constitutional democracy and good government.

Year after year, the Auditor-General reports billions in unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful spending, yet in some government departments nothing seems to happen. And now the African National Congress and its leaders in and out of government have adopted a barely-concealed hostility to the Public Protector's report on the mis-spending of our money on Nkandla.

At the end of March, as part of the church's Lenten observances, I called upon people of faith to return to the steps of St George's Cathedral and once again to join a silent vigil there. We were joined at short notice by an encouraging number as we stood in the footsteps of our predecessors, holding flowers and posters which illustrated the theme of the vigil, “A Flower for Thuli, A Message for the President”, referring of course to the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, and her report on the upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s private country estate. The placards called on the President to respond to the Public Protector’s report, and on the public to defend our Chapter Nine institutions.

After the vigil, I voiced in the cathedral an appeal for the entire faith-based and NGO community to gather, not to defend the Public Protector as an individual but to defend the rights of the public and the integrity of her office; in short to stand up for good governance. Since then, we have been wrestling with how do to this, engaging in the deep reflection which Lent enjoins the Christians among us to engage in.

This led to the call that I and other Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders issued yesterday (Tuesday) to the public of Cape Town to join us in a Procession of Witness at 10 am on Saturday, April 19, walking from District Six to Parliament, to call our leaders to account and to appeal them to live up to the national values established by the Constitution. The call was supported by the full spectrum of the inter-faith community, from the Muslim Judicial Council and the Union of Orthodox Synagogues to the Methodist Church, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, the Uniting Reformed Church and the Uniting Presbyterian Church.

Our intention is to evoke the spirit of the 1980s, when the faith community intervened to promote and defend democracy. Anyone who shares our objectives, including members of political parties, is free to join our procession, but no political party posters or insignia will be permitted, and it will be led by religious leaders, not by politicians. And your concerns need not be limited to the Public Protector's report – since consulting community leaders on our intentions, the crises brought about in our communities by gangsterism, drug abuse and poor education have also been raised.

In recent conversations with leaders in politics, business, education, civic life, civil society and religion, I have been exploring the issue of what national values should be guiding us by posing questions to them. At the core of these questions is, how can we challenge those in power and governance by pointing them to our national values, their institutional values and even their personal values? How can they serve with these values in mind and use them to transform all into being loving and compassionate interacting and interdependent communities sharing common interests, common goals and shared values? How can they put themselves into the shoes of those at the receiving end of their governing?

In that spirit, I want to ask of ANC leaders and the Cabinet: What do you have to do to bring our country together at this critical point in our democratic history? What do you have to do to create a renaissance in trust?

One of Madiba's greatest characteristics was his ability to revisit his positions and decisions and to change course when it seemed right to do so, not in his own personal interests but in the interests of building and holding the nation together. Our political leaders are challenged now to reset their moral compasses and to follow his example.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

This article was published as an op-ed in the Cape Argus, Cape Town on April 16, 2014