The past is always with us, says Judith February

The South African constitution should not be turned into a scapegoat.

This was the overwhelming message from the Frederick van Zyl Slabbert (FVZS) honorary lecture by Judith February, senior research associate at the Institute for Security Studies, this Thursday evening.

Speaking at an event hosted by the FVZS Institute in collaboration with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung South Africa group, February spoke on the nature of South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

Dr Leslie van Rooi, former head of FVZS Institute, and Miss Judith February. PHOTO: Dalaine Krige


The event paid homage to a famous alumnus, Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert. The institute of student leadership that bears his name empowers thousands of young people with crucial knowledge and skills to contribute to the wellbeing of society as active citizens, said the events MC and Acting Head of the FVZS Institute Ms Heidi October.

The Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch, Prof Wim de Villiers, said that “the gift the university has to offer is one of imagination – the lighted torch which passes from hand to hand. And that is exactly what the Van Zyl Slabbert Institute does. It allows us to pass the torch of leadership to a new generation”.

Prof de Villiers continued by saying that the narrative of Stellenbosch being the cradle of apartheid is an oversimplification. “Yes, HF Verwoerd and BJ Vorster were Maties, but so was Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and Beyers Naudé and Johan Degenaar and many others who challenged injustice and helped build bridges across all kinds of divides in the search for common ground”.

Prof Wim de Villiers in his opening address, discussing the University’s vision a year before its centenary. PHOTO: Dalaine Krige


Judith February, the keynote speaker, summed Van Zyl up as a “teacher, a writer, an intellectual, a leader, a politician, a critical thinker and a nation builder.” She continued by saying that “above all, he was a great South African”.

February recalled the lessons from South Africa’s past. The first was that the economy needed fixing. Some form of shared sacrifice would be necessary to deal with the ravages of the past, perhaps through an economic Codesa. Lesson two was that “our trust deficit was papered over by ‘rainbow discourse’ in 1994 and that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission never fully allowed us to deal with our past,” she said.

“We are now swinging between hope and despair, a state captured by corruption and cronyism of the worst kind. In many ways we are still a country in the throes of transition,” February said.

February believes that the lessons from the past, and the long road that South Africa has travelled, is often forgotten by the youth. “The early difficult decisions that Nelson Mandela made to pull South Africa from the edge of the abyss” are challenged by the youth she said. “2017 is a place that is markedly different from before 1994,” she said.

The question and answer session delved into topics like the tension between the executive and the judiciary, “lawfare”, reasons to celebrate the constitution, Makhosi Khoza, the most recent motion of no confidence as well as slogans as populist tools.

Miss February was committed to her stance that rationality must rule, asking “if something falls, what rises in its place and if things burn, who will rebuild?”

February believes that there are key ingredients that make up a democracy. These are education, constitutional education especially, a culture of accountability, an independent media and active and engaged citizenship.

“The past lies between us in every discussion about race and class and in every disagreement about structural inequality. Too many victims’ questions remain unanswered while the perpetrators walk amongst us,” she said in response to the high levels of inequality and unemployment in South Africa.

One audience member, Yamkelani Mabandla, said that she felt the lecture was both “insightful and problematic”. She was concerned by the focus on race and class with very little attention being paid to gender, especially during Women’s Month.

February is a senior research associate at the Institute for Security Studies and is affiliated to the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice at the University of Cape Town.

She was previously the executive director of the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery unit at the Human Sciences Research Council and headed the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for nine years. She obtained her LLM in Commercial Law at UCT and has worked extensively on good governance, transparency and accountability in the South African context. – Dalaine Krige

Judith February during her keynote address to the crowd. PHOTO: Dalaine Krige


Judith February and Lize-Mari Doubell during the question and answer session. PHOTO: Dalaine Krige


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