That South Africa is politically crippled is beyond doubt. The legislature is dysfunctional; its leadership is compromised and more often than not the national parliament is a circus, especially when the president is in attendance. Political leaders no longer enjoy the trust of the majority of South Africans, even amongst supporters of the ruling party.
Moreover, the state is under attack from rent-seeking networks who profit disproportionately off the substantial procurement budget of the state (i.e. R500 billion). It is now common knowledge that the president and his family is deeply embroiled with an Indian born family – the Gupta family – who have been central to a mountain of scandals related to the procurement budgets of state-owned entities and government departments.
Only this weekend, the emails of the Gupta family and their network of associates were leaked to the press. Every day new scandals emerge, scandals that would normally be enough to force the resignations of those who have been exposed; purely on the basis of preserving the integrity of the offices they occupy. Yet nothing happens.
Apart from a few very junior fall-guys, hardly anybody suffers severe consequences for corruption and maladministration. More often than not the guilty party is taken out of the public eye for a while, only to then be elevated to a new position. In other words they are rewarded the same way as a foot soldier in a criminal network is; they go to jail without ever confessing the whole truth knowing that a reward awaits them on the other side of their time inside.
Loyalty lies at the core of one’s survival in the political leadership and bureaucracy of the South African state. Without it, one is consigned to an existence of fear and anxiety; you do not enjoy ‘protection’ and are hence vulnerable. You may not get that promotion, despite how competent you are. You may not get that job, despite being qualified for it. You may not get social housing, healthcare, and so forth, without having the money to smooth a few palms.
There is little comfort in this new South Africa if you are not connected to power, whether at the local levels, or higher. In this way South Africa is moving backwards. It is becoming a country that shares the same qualities that the Apartheid state possessed. Under the disproportionately unequal distribution of power under Apartheid the only way to ensure that one’s needs were addressed was to access power and demonstrate loyalty to it. This loyalty was bought in many different ways, not only through bribery. This is a critical point to keep in mind, as it is through this that society was subdued and kept ‘in its place’ so to speak.
An authoritarian regime demands loyalty to it at every rung of the ladder of power. It demands that loyalty be openly declared and demonstrated through acts. It does not tolerate mere loyalty through words, loyalty has to be proved. And ironically, despite our liberal egalitarian constitution and the progressively structured state and government we have put in place we have, in essence, reproduced the same structural and power relations that dominated societal relations under Apartheid.
It is not a casual statement to make, that is; that we have reproduced the systemic flaws of Apartheid in our new democracy. Indeed, it is one that should provoke pause for thought. How, despite the concerted and energetic efforts to transform South African society in the transition to democratic rule, did the very same structural and power relations reproduce themselves?
Is there some kind of stubborn DNA that government, the state and society possesses? Is there something deep within the people that colonialism and Apartheid reproduced? Is there a tacit system of rules, controls, functions and processes that survived all attempts and efforts to transform government, the state and the key institutions and organisations within South African society? What is it that is holding us back?
Perhaps it is a combination of these factors that come together to render the government, state and society irreversibly set on a trajectory that it struggles to redirect. Perhaps whatever efforts are made to transform it, it will nonetheless find ways to regroup and continue along the same path. It is resilient and stubborn because it has entrenched itself over many centuries. It cannot easily be undone. The current leadership, and their failings, are but actors in a saga that has endured over hundreds of years; a saga that pauses reluctantly only when exceptional leaders happen to grace us with their wisdom and patience.
This has occasioned many with the view that the current death-spiral that the ANC government is locked in – torn apart by factionalism and ridden with scandals of corruption and maladministration – is nothing more than a continuation of the status quo that South Africans have endured for centuries. There is nothing new about it they claim. All that has changed is that whereas corrupt and predatory behaviour was once largely the preserve of powerful colonial and settler elites, it now wears the face of the black elite. Calm down, they say, it didn’t bother you before; the only reason it bothers you now is that black people are doing it.
It is a perverse logic, one that brokers nihilism as though that is all we can hope for. We are forever to be caught within an unequal, exploitative system that denies the majority their rightful seat at the table. They are forever to be the loyal subjects of patrons who wield power over them instead of serving and representing them faithfully. Yet this perverse logic is merely the logic of acquiescence. It is not the logic of struggle. It is its opposite. It draws on a long psychology of reconciling with oppression and conspiring with it against one’s own people. It is not a logic that can bring about anything new.
Half-baked ideological rhetoric is marshaled to stir up the undecided and the lumpen proletariat. Promises that will never be fulfilled are lapped up because the central question – i.e. how – is not adequately interrogated. Yet the questions that should be at the top of our minds, and should constitute the key social questions that we – as a society – are concerned with, are not concerned with how we can bring about a better future.
Our questions are, by comparison, more concerned with who should take the blame for the system that we endure under. We are not concerned with the question of how to give birth to new trajectories and sustain them. We repeatedly fail to draw on our ability to generate new possibilities, to draw on our creative imaginations and sustain the vision that flows from them.
Perhaps this is because we are so removed from power, so powerless in reality, that we cannot imagine how we can be active agents in changing the society we live in. Perhaps this is because of our “growing alienation from the political process”, as literary master and Professor Njabulo Ndebele put it today in an address to the South African public given by the board of trustees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He drew on a statement of academic Khaya Sithole, who describes our condition as:
“The replacement of the politics of participation by a politics of ratification, in which citizens ratify decisions taken elsewhere by others through a system now viewed as fragile”
Power gone unchecked has rendered South Africa a confused mess. The absence of an active citizenry, one that exercises its prerogative as constitutional citizens, has rendered democracy itself ineffective. In the vast chasm where true power should lie, lies instead a collective vacuum. The citizenry have abdicated their role as the ultimate arbiter and judge of the powerful. Its elected leaders and unelected elites have hence run amok. They have taken the gap – so to speak – and it has widened considerably, leaving nothing but confusion and apathetic despair in its wake. As Njabulo Ndebele put it, they are not concerned with the constitution from which our citizenry draw their collective purpose and vision for the future:
“Instead, they use and abuse the constitutional state to build parallel bases of power and extract wealth shamelessly for themselves and their networks. It is no wonder that this untenable situation has led to calls across the land for the head of state, President Zuma – largely regarded as the author of the current malaise – to vacate the highest office of state. We urge him to listen to the voice of the people.”
The elites in power have moved so fast that they have left us reeling. Their project is to bend the constitution to their will, and to violate it if necessary, in service of an ill-defined political project; one that has been constructed behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms, far away from the grassroots, where the voices that should count the most reside. The citizenry – on the bottom – are left with nothing but sound-bites and searing rhetoric to guide us. We are expected to ignore the inconsistencies and the multiple agendas that load this project, and to throw our support behind those profess to act in our name. They demand our loyalty. They no longer deem us worthy of earning it from us.
That is what unchecked power ultimately leads to. Power, after all, takes its place amongst the worst of addictions; it is not something to be granted without oversight. It remains to be seen whether South Africans have yet understood what is required from them to preserve their democracy; that they cannot rely on their leaders – whether in government or elsewhere – to perform their primary role for them, that is; holding power to account.