The Rivonia Circle is a teaching moment in South African politics

August 26, 2022

The novelty in the approach of the Rivonia Circle has left many on endless speculation mode about our real intentions. Others have even told us to “grow a pair and declare” [that we will stand in the 2024 elections]. There is no need to speculate.

The Rivonia Circle will not become a political party but will offer robust and innovative insights on the future of South Africa, including the need for a new political culture. These insights are generated from our research, activities in communities, Townhall conversations and multiple convenings that we undertake.

The Rivonia Circle was launched as an unorthodox think tank with unconcealed ambition to “building a different future”, as Songezo Zibi stated in the launch statement. This future is largely determined by the state of our politics. When political order collapses, in any country, it is difficult for anything else to thrive unless the politics are fixed.

Governments are generally formed through political processes, and they go on to implement laws, regulate life in the country and play a significant role in determining the future of citizens. For this reason, countries deserve to be governed by the best people who are committed to the people’s social contract (our constitution).

Anything less than this tends to breed chaos that may result in social, political and economic instability, therefore leading to environmental degradation. This is the path South Africa is currently traversing – a journey towards a failed state. This needs to be stopped. The big question is the how part.

The Rivonia Circle was launched to fill an identifiable vacuum where people are generally demobilised from political activity and have significantly opted out of electoral politics (i.e. voting).

At the launch of the organisation, Tessa Dooms defined Rivonia Circle as a “knowledge hub for policy and political alternatives”. We are committed to achieving this and continue to engage in South Africa politically. Most think tanks tend to produce knowledge for consideration by the political establishment. Other think tanks go on to litigate against the state as a form of holding those who govern accountable. But many tend to avoid mobilising citizens as this is often seen as a preserve for social movements.

The Rivonia Circle has a complex operating model, necessitated by the desire to gain deep insights about the South African society. We mobilise activists, we conduct civic conversations in communities, we commission research, we engage people using political theatre as an artistic form of engaging in politics and we convene people and organisations from different sectors and backgrounds.

Collectively, this work gives us a holistic understanding of the challenges people face, the work being done in communities to strive for change and the aspirations of people for the future. We call this South Africa 2.0 because we are certain the country is due for an upgrade. Post the 2024 national elections, Rivonia Circle should launch South Africa 3.0. This way we will remain a forward-looking entity that invests greatly in articulating the necessary path to be travelled by the country.

When we talk about political alternatives, we mean both formal and informal politics. Our Democracy Builder programme is open to people of all political persuasion. This programme mobilises and supports communities from all backgrounds and orientations to take action by building solutions to local problems they want to solve.

In implementing the Democracy Builder, we adopt a rural and peri-urban bias in our work. This is because many tend to leave out these communities in their work. Yet, these are the communities that feel acutely the consequences of state collapse currently underway in South Africa.

Though some have labelled the Rivonia Circle as elitist, we pardon this as ignorance on the work we are doing in real communities and not on Twitter. We have established a presence in no less than six provinces, well en route to reaching the remaining provinces before the year ends.

This work is important to provide platforms for people to have honest conversations about the state of the country, to come up with ideas on how to solve the issues. That is why we have the working theme: Power to Act. We need to really invest and believe in people’s power to act in the best interests of South Africa. In some of our research and conversations, people often say “if only the politicians could come to us because we have the solutions”.

The failure of political parties is that they engage society closer to elections and then disengage as soon as the votes are tallied. This creates a void in society and can easily be filled by opportunistic elements that are wedge drivers and lead to much social discontent.

For this reason, the Rivonia Circle must exist for the next 50 years as a solid and trusted convener of political conversations in South Africa. The Rivonia Circle must provide a sustainable vehicle that does not depend on political correctness but on standing with the truth, assisted by a fact-driven agenda.

Our research shows that people are tired of political parties and politicians in general. Most people are seeking for a political movement that will have a democratic culture, will be driven less by egos of founding figures and more by a culture that is about co-creation of solutions to the deep problems we confront.

South Africans are also equally worn out by the fragmentation in our political landscape. Simply adding another political party to the fray will not lead to any impact. Then, why would the Rivonia Circle ignore its own insights and morph into a political party? People are imposing their wishes on us without engaging seriously with our work.

There is no doubt we will have an impact on the road to the 2024 elections because our insights will benefit those who are open to unlearning the old ways of doing politics and embrace some of the lessons we have been publishing. Our work gives people hope because we are committed to deepening South Africa’s democracy and engage openly on the need for new political cultures, in ways that are not fleeting nor farcical.

By Lukhona Mnguni

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