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New South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses his supporters during a ceremony to mark 100 years from Mandela's birth New South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses his supporters during a ceremony to mark 100 years from Mandela's birth  (ANSA)

South Africa’s season for repentance, dialogue, conversion and change

As the eyes of the world look to new South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to provide new leadership and opportunity to his people, Jesuit Father Russell Pollitt reflects on how this is a time for the nation's rulers to pause, reflect and undertake a journey of dialogue and conversion for the common good.

By Linda Bordoni

The Church in South Africa has welcomed the news of Jacob Zuma's resignation on 14 February calling on South Africans to stand behind the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, and urging the leadership to heed the cry of the poor.

Zuma reluctantly stepped down as head of state on orders from the ruling African National Congress (ANC), bringing an end to his nine scandal-plagued years in power.

The road to social and economic justice will be long and hard in a nation that is still so divided by race and inequality, but Zuma’s ultimate demise is proof of the enduring strength of its institutions - from the judiciary to the media to the Constitution – and to the vitality of civil society and faith based organizations that have a lot to contribute to rebirth and renewal.

Father Russell Pollitt, Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, spoke to Linda Bordoni about the momentous challenges facing the new President and about how this moment is also an opportunity for the Church – that provided such a prophetic voice during the years of apartheid – to regain its rightful place in the narrative of the nation:

Ramaphosa’s first state of the nation address takes place on Friday signaling a new dawn for the nation, and Pollitt agrees Zuma’s resignation on the evening of Ash Wednesday poignantly highlights the need for South African leaders to pause and reflect in penitence and conversion.

A poignant time for politicians to pause and reflect

Pollitt said that although Zuma was seen as a problem and was asked by his own party to step down, it is not to be forgotten or overlooked that the ANC stood behind Zuma for the past 10 years “when court judgments were passed against him, when he violated his oath of office as President, when he disobeyed international criminal procedure by allowing someone like al Bashir to come to the country and then to leave when he should have been arrested”.

“The Party has aided and abetted and supported Zuma for the past 10 years: he didn’t do this on his own” he said.

So, Pollitt said, the party needs to account, and as Pope Francis said on Ash Wednesday, it needs to pause and reflect because it is not blameless and it allowed him to do what he did.

“I think we must be very careful to think that just because Zuma is out, the problems of South Africa are gone” Pollitt continued. He remarked on the fact that there are a number of people still in government, in the ANC, that need to take responsibility and that need to be held accountable for what they did.

“The party must ask itself: if we are going to be a governing party is this the image we want to project? Is this the way we want to behave?” he said.

Upholding the content of a statement just released by The Jesuit Institute South Africa regarding the resignation of Zuma as South Africa’s President, Pollitt reiterates that those who have suffered most harm in the past nine years are the poor who have become even poorer.

The poor bearing the brunt of bad governance and corruption 

He presented a series of concrete examples to prove the point such as the case of the Minister of Social Development whom, he said “has proved herself over, and over, and over again, to be incompetent, dishonest and untrustworthy”.

“The lives of 17 million of the poorest south Africans rest in her hands because it is her department that gives social grants to those people every month, many of them living in rural areas, many of them elderly, unemployed, single mothers and so on” and he said that notwithstanding a ruling by the Constitutional court of the country saying that what she had done was wrong, and recommending she pay back legal expenses, “Jacob Zuma and the ANC left her in power and now, still, South Africa faces another social grant crisis and she continues to act with impunity…”.

Pollitt also mentioned the scandals regarding the state capture by the Gupta family and the huge amount of money that was meant to go for development – especially where there was little development in some of the poorest rural areas – and the fact that that money has disappeared and remains unaccounted for.

“The poor have suffered by this mismanagement and by the legacy that Jacob Zuma left the country” he said, and “the first challenge Ramaphosa must tackle is that he must root out corruption”.

The need for accountability and justice

Another important issue the people are looking to is that of accountability and justice.

“What he decides to do with Jacob Zuma and the 783 charges that are stacked up against him: will he put Zuma up for prosecution? Will Zuma have a day in court? This is a big question in many South Africans’ minds” he said.

So, Pollitt continued, a number of numbers of ministers must go: people who have been involved in dirty deals, who have not been accountable etc…

But, he asked: will Ramaphosa be able to move those people out? Because he is also subjected to the party that has put him forward as President, and many of those who should be ousted are party members… Also, he’s been talking about unity in the party because different factions have emerged, so

“by getting rid of these ministers will he be jeopardizing that unity and jeopardizing his support base?”

Other fundamental challenges Ramaphosa will be facing include how is he going to stimulate the economy? How is he going to tackle unemployment, especially for young people? How will he satisfy international investors?

Role of the church

Pollitt said the moment offers the Church the opportunity to raise its prophetic voice as it did before the end of apartheid.

He said that since the establishment of democracy in 1994, there is a sense that the Church has been somewhat pushed aside and it is now called to continually be prophetic to hold those in leadership accountable.

“I think the Church has to continue, in the many ways that it already does, trying to nurture relationships with government so that clinics and schools and all those sorts of social services can be made to benefit the poorest of the poor in this country” he said.

He said there also has to more of an open dialogue between Church and government: “the Church has been sidelined and now there is an opportunity for the Church, once again, to take its rightful place in the narrative of the country.

An opportunity to show the world that the country has the potential and the capacity to move forward

Pollitt described South Africa as a nation of many opportunities, great diversity and potential and said that “if there is a leadership in this country in both the faith-based sphere and in government, if everyone is working off the same hymn sheet, there is great opportunity to develop.”

South Africa can be the country that Mandela envisaged 

“The country can be the country that Nelson Mandela envisaged, but it’s going to take effort, hard work, and compromise on a number of different sides, there are a lot of issues from the past that still need to be dealt with in an effective way, there needs to be genuine dialogue” he said.

He pointed out that Pope Francis has said so many times that the way to a better future together is through engagement and dialogue.

What we need to do as Church, and as a country, Pollitt concluded, is to use the opportunity that has been put before us:

“It’s symbolic that this has happened at the beginning of Lent, where there is an opportunity for repentance, there is an opportunity for dialogue, for conversion to bring about change. And that is possible if everyone does their part.”

Listen to the interview with Russell Pollitt SJ
15 February 2018, 19:23