GROWING up in Eldorado Park with a pastor for a father, Tessa Dooms was immersed in community service and activism from a young age.
She fantasised about becoming a fashion designer but her parents insisted she do something “more serious", so Tessa became the first person in her family to attend university. She went to Wits to study psychology, but then she discovered sociology.
“Psychology was about solving issues at the individual level, whereas sociology was better for thinking about how to solve the problems at a societal level."
Dooms obtained a Master's degree in sociology and spent seven years in academia — first at North-West University and later at Wits and the University of Johannesburg. “I was teaching, of course, but also pursuing studies around religion and young people’s sexual health. This kept me engaged with youth issues. The development of young people became my north star."
Dooms became “antsy" about the impact she could make in the academic world. “ I realised I was graduating students into a broken world. Young, black and talented, but we were sending them into a world that wasn’t necessarily ready for them."
She spent several years working for YouthLab (which she discovered on Twitter), an organisation that gets young people involved in non-partisan political conversations.
“It moved me from thinking about solving things in a tactile, activist way towards policy and systemic issues."
Several years at the African Union, training youth volunteers all over the continent, made her realise “that what was happening in South Africa was in some ways unique, but in many ways not", and she says she became fixated on the idea that “young people should be given more space to engage at the highest levels of government".
Dooms says she has never been overtly political, but she was pushed into getting more involved in looking for political solutions to South Africa's deepening crisis by the July riots in 2021.
“It felt like we were 10 minutes away from the country burning, but I realised that I had garnered enough privilege to insulate myself from what was happening.
“I was not shocked or surprised by the riots. If I’m blunt, I was surprised that it took so long and that they were as easily stopped. South Africa has been in protest mode for at least the better part of the last 20 years, and I take seriously the idea that we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb.
“But the riots made me decide to become a lot more forceful about changing this country. Up to that point, I had been very clear about not having a political affiliation.
“At the Rivonia Circle, we see the crisis in SA as economic, social and political. We want to change the way politics works because communities that carry the worst burdens of a broken government and a broken society are cut off from political power. The politics we’ve created in this country has given our votes to political parties to do with as they please."
People are worse off
“We all agree that apartheid was a crime against humanity and democracy was an improvement on that, but over the past 15 years specifically, people's lives have actually deteriorated. Government services have deteriorated radically, and no attempts at a more equal economy have worked.
“When there was a functional state to some extent, it gave people a sense that economic justice could be addressed, but the more the state’s dysfunction set in and things like basic services started to collapse, the more people realised that government was not on their side. And the economy and the people who run the economy didn't want them either.
“That is crippling. Communities are left to fend for themselves and the societal fabric starts to erode because people don’t feel like they own this country.
“And whether this finds expression in xenophobic sentiments, increasing crime or looting, it's all people who don’t have a sense of ownership in this country any more. And there’s no way to fix that except through political power and economic redress."
“At the centre of the economic question is what I call radical solidarity. It's about caring about issues not because they affect you but because they affect others. In a society as unequal as ours, the only way to build new, better, different systems is for those who benefit from the current system to recognise that they are going to have to benefit less in order for somebody else to benefit as well.
“And the reason I say this with so much forthrightness is because I recognise my own privilege. Even in this version of a broken society, I have, through social networks and social capital and opportunity, come to certain levels of privilege. And I can either use that privilege to protect myself, or I can help to create systems where other can people have more than they have now.
“That means I might have to reorganise my sense of what I deserve, because what I deserve has been based on a system which clearly isn’t working for the majority of people."
Elections in 2024
“I won’t tell you what could happen, I will tell you about what needs to happen. The first thing is that the voters must own the election. Voters must realise and recognise that elections are not about the candidates or the parties; they are about the voters’ opportunity to hire and fire.
“We must treat the act of voting very differently. Firstly, to make a conscious decision to show up. And secondly, to determine what the agenda of the election is before the political parties decide.
“Too much focus has been given in the past to who is on the ballot rather than what is on the ballot. Just as you go into a protest with a memorandum of demands, we need to go into this election with a memorandum of demands, whether those are about accountability, healthcare, schools or crime. We must say what the solutions are that we want to see.
“Voting is not just a civic duty. It's a process of hiring and firing. We must make our demands as collectives of people rather than in hushed corners as individuals.
“Unregistered voters and people who have started to withdraw from the vote are the greatest political opposition party out there. If those people showed up, they would change the future of the country because the ANC in the last election didn’t get more than 10 million votes.”
Salaries not service
“We need a better quality of people to vote for. We must move away from deciding our vote based on one messianic personality.
“We focus so much on the top leaders that we forget that an entire system needs to be filled with leaders. We should look for hundreds and thousands of quality community leaders to represent us.
“How our political system is set up has placed the political party at the centre of it. And voting has become an act of giving our power to parties who then — without checks and balances — do whatever they want. And if you add that these parties have become careerists and about patronage, you have the answer about what happened to us. Our politicians are in politics for salaries, not service."
Coalitions are Politics 101
“Whether coalitions work or not is an irrelevant point. They are not something that you desire or will away. They are an outcome of elections. And parliamentary systems around the world, even non-parliamentary systems like the US, should actually tend towards sharing power rather than single-party dominance. People always say we need a two-party system like the US.
“Building coalitions is Politics 101. In order to even have a political party, you need to coalesce with other people, so coalitions, as a phenomenon, should be manageable. But you need good politicians who know how to coalesce with others and who know how to convince others of a shared vision and a shared plan.
“Coalition politics should not scare us if we choose good-quality people. The more coalitions we have, the better for society, but if we do not choose the right people to represent our interests and we do not have adequate ways to hold those people to account, then coalitions will always be a shit show.
“The City of Joburg is probably the most glaring instance of where it’s going wrong. There are two fundamental failures. The first is that the politicians are ill-equipped to negotiate on the basis of principle. They are all just negotiating on the basis of positions.
“But secondly, it’s also a function of us not having proper legislation and proper regulation to ensure that citizens can actually get engaged in the decisions that are made and that there’s some sort of legal and political consequence for making bad coalitions.
“In 2024, we are likely to have a coalition government at the national level and in quite a few provinces, and we desperately need better laws and regulations around how coalitions function and how they can be better managed and held more accountable, because the worst outcomes are the mismanagement of coalitions to nefarious ends.
“What we’re seeing in the City of Joburg, this rotating mayorship, will, at a national level, become a rotating presidency. And for every president, we get to pay a salary for life. The consequences are dire.
“We must vote for politicians who have plans for accountability around coalitions, and we must have laws that help govern and guide it, otherwise our future will be very unstable."
♦ VWB ♦
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