Let’s remind ANC who is boss
Perhaps South Africans should begin to take election promises with a pinch of salt, as is the case in other countries
It is a painful matter for most of us to confront but let’s face it: South Africa’s hard-won democracy looks as if it might be unraveling in important respects. Like other African states in the post-independence era, it has taken less than two decades to spot a number of the classic characteristics of possible democratic failure in this country.
A gloomy exaggeration? Well, take a look at the fault lines that have emerged since South Africa’s euphoric triumph of freedom over tyranny at the start of Nelson Mandela presidency in 1994.
First of all, the ANC Freedom Charter’s hallowed notion that “the people shall govern” – cornerstone of our constitutional democracy – is being undermined almost daily by authoritarian statements from leaders like the youthful Julius Malema who grandly conflate the ruling party, the government and the state with scant reference to the democratic source of their power: the country’s citizens.
Although the ANC seems perpetually in electioneering mode, claims that President Zuma will rule until the Second Coming emphasised the tone of such arrogance both before and after he came to office and, indeed, there is no strong parliamentary opposition to the ANC 15 years on from South Africa’s first democratic election. Attempts to stifle dissent through violent language, such as Gwede Montashe telling Kader Asmal that he risked “bleeding to death” if he continued to criticize the ANC, fly in face of free speech.
Secondly, as the widely-respected analyst Dr Mamphela Ramphele has pointed out, the relationship between the people and the government has become defined by the extent to which the latter delivers on election promises – resulting in the idea of giver and recipient rather than citizen and representative. A giver/recipient relationship is a recipe for failure on both sides, Ramphele warns, because the government – whether led by Mandela, Mbeki or Zuma and regardless of how well intentioned its leadership – simply cannot honour the extravagant promises made by the ANC against the backdrop of apartheid’s almost insurmountable legacy of deprivation.
Perhaps South Africans should be more cynical about political promises, as voters are in many other countries, but longstanding faith in the ANC among the poor is beginning to backfire. That the police have lately started to respond with rubber bullets to disadvantaged communities demanding service delivery is testament to the dangerous frustration accumulating on both sides.
Furthermore, awareness in the citizenry of management and leadership failure at all levels of government due to widespread skills deficits among those appointed through political patronage to positions beyond their competence is increasingly recognized not only as corruption but as disempowerment of the majority. One or two useless mayors have been removed from office recently in response to the resultant street protests but the skills paucity is endemic.
(Some municipalities no longer employ any engineers at all – yikes. Every one of us has experienced Eskom’s costly failures yet we are expected to condone the organisation’s boss getting an increase of nearly one-million rand. A third of the country’s teachers are inadequately qualified or unqualified. A quarter of our police force is functionally illiterate, admittedly a consequence of the inescapable need to sweep aside all of apartheid’s cruel and prejudiced cops: nevertheless, a vital challenge to leadership that has been lost while crime has spun out of control over the past 15 years.)
A culture of impunity has swept so brazenly through South African institutions that few citizens believe their representatives will bear the consequences of corruption. Golf-playing fraudster Shabir Shaik’s premature release from prison on spurious health grounds earlier this year was a lesson in shameful abuse of power at the highest level.
So what can be done? How can South Africans call their leaders to account and stop the democratic rot?
It may be too late to trust that the ruling party can be persuaded to mend its ways from within, although there are a few hopeful signs, such as Zuma making his transport minister return a fancy vehicle he was given by the taxi industry. Ambitions in the ANC used to be fuelled by generational politics and later by the internals vs exiles divide. But aspirations in the governing hierarchy over the decade since the arms deal came to light seem to be driven mainly by fast cars and fat cheques.
(That the exiting public protector got R7-million and a BMW when moving from one job to another is scandalous yet no longer extraordinary. That Thabo Mbeki and those loyal to him were ousted from power so brutally may well encourage public servants to get rich even quicker in anticipation of a short life but a merry one.)
Only a leadership that is genuinely inspired by the best interests of the people can reverse these trends. President Zuma, though as canny as a cane rat to have got through some very narrow escapes to where he is today, seems more skilled in the politics of arousal than fairplay, accountability and reason. He does possess, however, the inestimable advantages over his predecessor of a human heart and a listening ear, on which qualities much hope in South Africa’s future now hinges.
Unfortunately, we cannot rely on an opposition party to bolster our democracy since early hopes of Cope as a reformist alternative evaporated with its ignominious leadership infighting even before 7% of us had voted for the new party. Helen Zille’s control of the Cape offers the DA the satisfying opportunity to present a contrastingly well-run province to the electorate but the majority of South Africans are destined to continue to vote racially for many years to come.
What remains as a solution is for ordinary citizens to force our leaders to acknowledge where power in a democracy lies: not with puffed-up politicians but with a population the ANC has agreed at the polls to serve. As we have already seen on our streets in a range of angry demonstrations, such a timely reminder will revive the politics of protest perfected by the ANC itself in a proud toyi-toying legacy that the ruling party will not welcome this time around yet may have no choice but to heed.