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Former president Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria Former president Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria 

South Africa offering a lesson in democracy and rebirth

The Parliamentary Liaison Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference is a vehicle for contact and dialogue between the Catholic Church and South Africa's Parliament and government. Headed by Father Peter John Pearson, it provides an avenue for the Church to contribute to debates and to exert influence for the common good in areas of political, economic and social concern. Fr Pearson comments on the unfolding political changes in the nation.

By Linda Bordoni

South African President Jacob Zuma’s resignation appears to be getting closer as his deputy, who is expected to replace him, said he anticipated a “speedy resolution” to transition talks he is holding with the President.

Cyril Ramaphosa, who was recently elected President of the ruling ANC Party, said he and Zuma would finish their discussions and report to the Party and to the nation in the coming days.

Zuma, who has been embroiled in financial and corruption scandals for years, has increasingly come under pressure to quit.

In a statement this week Ramaphosa said this is a challenging time for the country and he described the current transition process as a constructive one that offers “the greatest opportunity to conclude this matter without discord or division”.

Father Peter John Pearson heads the Parliamentary Liaison Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He said the current political situation is an opportunity for South Africa to offer the world an important lesson in democracy and rebirth.

Lesson in democracy

Speaking from the perspective of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office, Pearson acknowledged that the evolving political situation “does speak to a vibrant culture of democracy.”

He noted that no single South African President, since the birth of democracy in 1994, has completed his term and says that this points to a certain democratic impulse that says “don’t hang on to things, don’t call in the army to support your candidature.”

Pearson commented on the fact that South Africa can certainly boast of having “a feisty press, a feisty judiciary, a very feisty civil society and a very robust Parliament!”

“We have inherited a very vibrant democracy and all of that comes into play. That it takes the Party such a long time to act is a sad reflection on a Party that has had such a noble history, but I don’t think it could have happened without a change in the leadership” he said.

The emergence of a culture of accountability

Pearson pointed out that a culture has been emerging that calls for a culture of accountability. This, he said, lays the ground for a good outcome and the possibility of building something very enduring and strong in the years to come, and he explained: “it says ‘no body’s going to get away with undemocratic behavior’”.

Cyril Ramaphosa

Asked whether he thinks that Cyril Ramaphosa is the right man in the job, Pearson said incredibly high expectations are placed on his shoulders from all sides and commented on the fact that “he will not be able to make everyone happy”, however, he said “I think he is the one person in the country who has the cards that are necessary.”

Ramaphosa, he said, has a proud history in the liberation movement, a long and clean history in the corporate world and in the mining sector, and he is viewed with respect by leaders and policymakers across the globe.

In South Africa, Pearson continued, “he has support across the colour lines” and across social divides. It is important to note, he said, that “the middle class appreciate his skill, his mind for business, his fair play – he is seen as a friend of business”.

Pearson said when he takes over the Presidency he will immediately be called to make quick decisions regarding some of those in the Cabinet that Zuma surrounded himself with, but remarked that Ramaphosa has already proved his ability to move forward quickly and has good negotiating skills as demonstrated when he was pivotal in negotiating the new Constitution, and even prior 1990 he gave proof of being negotiation savvy.

“There are very few other people in South Africa who could pull this off” he said.

An example and a lesson for other nations

Pearson said the situation South Africa finds itself in sounds an alarm and is a “Wake-up call for South Africa. South Africa has relished and so has President Zuma, and as his own political fortunes have diminished he’s tried to invoke the political legacy of Mandela and of that generation”.

“This is a wake-up call that says that even if you had the moral high ground temporarily, the strength of a nation is in how quickly it sees the need and in how much political will it has to return to that ground and to rebuild the lost ground. I think that’s a good lesson for nations” he said.

What we can show many countries of the world that have been devastated in one way or another, Pearson said, is that “their greatness lies not in having once been great, but in returning and building moral values again and allowing the body politic to reflect that.”

“The restoration of values might be the lesson we have to learn” he said.

All this, he said, contains important lessons for civil society, which he said is increasingly under pressure to be deconstructed and weakened.

The Mandela legacy

Pearson also commented on the fact that despite the fact that South Africa has lost the moral high ground in the eyes of the world, the Mandela legacy lives on.

“People across the globe and across all political divides all invoke that legacy that still inspires people, so we need to build on that legacy” he said.

South African Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office

Pearson concludes explaining that the work, the presence and the voice of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office is a respected one: “it’s a voice that is invited into the political domain”.

He says all the members of the Office are well aware that they are working in an extremely competitive environment where many different voices are vying to be heard, but again, he said that is a good sign because it talks of the strength of civil society that is adamant that its voice be heard in the parliamentary domain

“We know that our voice has resonance only to the degree that we work consistently at it, that we build up a reputation of having a broad spectrum of interests, and that we are able to produce very viable kinds of arguments… to that degree we are certainly appreciated” he said.

Listen to the interview with Fr Peter John Pearson

09 February 2018, 18:16