South Africa has a long history of civil society participation, one that has been a catalyst for positive change across a broad range of issues. With every country being faced with its own challenges - be it private sector corruption or looting of state coffers – many have turned to civil society for assistance in advocating their interests. The unrelenting vigour of organisations such as Black Sash, Treatment Action Campaign, Abahlali baseMjondolo, Section 27 and many others serve as reminders of the importance of collaboration and debate between the public, government, private sector and civil society.
While I have observed the work of this sector from a distance, I have been intrigued by new entrant Save South Africa and its convenor Sipho Pityana. Many who aren't familiar with his commendable tenure in the public and private sector would have first encountered him when he lambasted the African National Congress leadership and called for President Jacob Zuma to step down at Makhenkesi Stofile's funeral in August 2016. His comments were nothing we haven't heard before, but the time and place positioned him as a non-partisan voice that the country's elite could rally behind. He has since risen to be South Africa's media darling through Save SA's aggressive anti-Jacob Zuma campaign, with support from ANC stalwarts and heavy hitters from the private sector.
In a strongly-worded letter addressed to disgraced former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, Pityana marked his recent appointment to parliament as "the day you tossed aside your own integrity and foolishly opted to be a tool of state capture rather than an instrument of democracy". It would be outlandish to disagree with his sentiments on rooting out the rot in government, but I have found myself questioning whether Save SA's contribution to the country's body politic is indeed as noble as they purport to be.
It is no secret that South Africa has suffered a great deal under the Zuma administration. We have witnessed good governance, ethical leadership and the foundations upon which our constitutional democracy have been built being sold to the highest bidders as they rub their fingers salaciously behind the scenes. It is through the likes of Save SA, oversight bodies and the Constitution that ordinary South Africans continue to ensure that leaders remain answerable to the people. Apart from the organisation's ability to amass support and attract significant media attention, I have reservations regarding how matters on justice and equality for all are often cherry-picked.
The misleading depiction of private sector corruption (to which Save SA has turned a blind eye) and Pityana's rise as a token black and national moral compass while the black majority continues to live in poverty due to poor working conditions leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It's very clear that Save SA advances interests of those who are notorious for not engaging on pertinent political and socio-economic challenges facing the country. It is this same group of people whose voices tend to echo much louder in comparison to the average working class community.
For the sake of fairness, this is not opposition towards some of the good work Pityana and Save SA are doing. It is a call for justice to be applied to the same standards in both the public and private sector institutions that break the law or abuse their power. I implore Save SA to exert as much pressure on captains of industry in calling for equal pay of workers and better working conditions, to call for transformation in corporate SA and remain consistent if the intention is indeed about saving South Africa. In the same way that we raise our voices about the real state of the nation, remaining impartial to injustice would resonate with ordinary people who aren't convinced that Save SA is just a group of elites targeting a select few while ignoring the myriad of challenges we continue to be faced with as a country.