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Speaking truth to power as part of Constitutional Duty

I AM a proud South African who believes that, collectively, across all boundaries, we can conquer whatever comes our way. We have proved that repeatedly.


As a proud South African, and someone who respects the Constitution, I know that it is more than a document or a leather-bound book on a bookshelf. It is a breathing, living document that guides the way we live and respect each other. It is a testament to the will of the negotiators who finished their work in 1996. It is a timely reminder of what we can do when we set our differences aside and look at the bigger picture.

Whilst the Constitution clearly protects freedom of speech there are growing noises and actions that hint that we should be cautious when we speak truth to power. When we speak out against corruption, misuse of power, absent service delivery, discrimination, and insensitivity to the plight of the poor, some so-called leaders are quick to call us counter-revolutionary, clever whites or blacks, capitalists, or protectors of minority interests.

Our current government, in power for 28 years, has become hypersensitive to criticism. Any and all criticism is rejected whilst empty cadre speak repeats itself on public and private platforms. This is against the backdrop of being criminally weak on delivery, but very energetic on non-cohesive policy statements.

Whilst we have this void of delivery and little policy certainty we are faced with the corruption monster as an ever-hungry consumer of hard-earned taxpayers’ money. Our justice system is slow, and politicised, and our security agencies are heavy on statements but light on action. There seem to be several people in leadership positions who are untouchable, even in the face of damning findings by the Zondo Commission and other commissions and agencies.

Against these troubling optics of a government living in the lap of luxury whilst the electorate is facing power cuts, potholes, lack of water, shacks for schools and a strained health system, the ANC government was severely punished at the municipal elections, losing control of prized metropolitan governments, and losing majority support in that sphere.

I have very little doubt that this trend will continue in the 2024 elections. In politics, momentum counts and the governing party has lost the voters’ trust and its position as the moral leader of society. And yet, some in government and the party seem to believe mistakenly that the party will govern forever.

The government’s job is not vague, it must improve the lives of all who live in our country, the National Assembly must hold the government accountable to the last cent, and the judiciary must be left alone to do their job without fear, favour or prejudice. We are, however, currently in a situation where we confuse and conflate party and state, and the government is increasingly usurping the powers of the other two pillars of good government.

The situation has now arisen, sooner than we could have expected, that strong and principled leaders who were schooled in the ANC, are looking elsewhere to find more suitable homes for their hopes. Long-time loyalists have irrevocably given up hope that the party who liberated South Africa will reach deep within and renew itself.

Against this unsettling reality, we hear the distant rumblings of the formation of a new political party with its roots in liberation politics but its eyes on clean government, people-sensitive delivery and an abhorrence of the current corrupt practices of those in power. Think for a moment what an effective government could have done with the billion or so Rands spent on the Zondo Commission or the billions siphoned off by the Guptas and their luxury-loving local associates. Think for a moment what our country could have done with functioning state-owned enterprises. Think for a moment about what could have been if we had woken up earlier to the complementary power of renewable energy.

Fear of reprisal and public humiliation by those in power is not an option anymore. We must point out the sickening and criminal misuse of our votes, trust and money. The betrayals of our trust, aspirations and values. Silence will only serve to strengthen those who believe it is their birth right to steal and plunder. Those fearless and honest leaders who must stand up and say: If I die, I die, but enough is enough, are you and me.

It is not someone else: It is you actively listening, and me speaking to you. Our country is a strong one, with principled and brave young men and women of all races, willing to lead together.

In closing, I urge you not to sell your voices, not to sell your souls, your votes, or your alliances cheaply. Treasure your freedom, birthed by the Constitution, and protect your right to a better life, served by an honest and competent government.

It is all in our hands.

  • This is an edited version of Dr Mathews Phosa’s speech delivered at the Fellow of STADIO Award in Centurion, Pretoria.