Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Politics of Omission: The Good, The Bad and the Unsaid

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Silence of the Wolves

In politics, what isn’t said out loud is often more important than what is. This has certainly been the case with the African National Congress’s recall of the president of the Republic, Jacob Zuma. It may seem incredible, but the entire recall process occurred without the ANC actually stating what President Zuma had done to provoke such a drastic action. The new ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule – a Zuma loyalist – went so far as to say that President Zuma did nothing wrong at all! Not to be outdone, President Zuma himself also took to the microphone, stating – in a television interview designed to reach his base – that he had not been given any reasons for his recall.

The reality of course is that there are many clear and indisputable reasons for recalling President Zuma. The Constitutional Court found that he had violated his oath of office when he refused to abide by the binding recommendations of the Public Protector over upgrades to his homestead. He has 783 charges pending related to his involvement in the arms deal of the early 2000s. He – and his son – have been implicated in “state capture” activities, along with a network of private sector, intelligence, government and state actors. Under his leadership, parliament and government have been hamstrung by protest. The state is failing badly in many areas. ‘Service delivery’ protests skyrocketed under his leadership, and a culture of disruptive, often violent protests have seeded in communities who feel that they only way they can draw attention to matters that plague them is by taking direct action. Political assassinations, intimidation and corruption have spread at the local level.

For all intents and purposes, Jacob Zuma should have exited power a long time ago. It was the ANC that kept him in power, refusing to act upon his many transgressions, scuppering all attempts to depose him. Many who were calling for his removal now were deeply in bed with him and his cronies and enthusiastically enjoyed the spoils of his wayward leadership. And so it was, that even when they decided it was time for him to go, they could not bring themselves to speak out loud the many and varied transgressions and failures of his leadership and his government. It is ironic, but in keeping with the tradition of duplicity, rhetoric and double-speak that became entrenched under his leadership. That is, to say one thing and do another.

Yet, in order to heal an illness, is it not true that it must be diagnosed? That it must be named? The refusal to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for the disastrous situation the ANC created, simply means that it cannot enter into an honest period of self-reflection, healing and renewal. It is still stuck deep in the mud left behind by its own floodwaters; the waters that broke when the dam wall that was supposed to hold power in check and to account was summarily detonated under Jacob Zuma’s leadership. It will take government and the state a long time to recover. Yet it will not recover until the truth is spoken out loud and acknowledged, and those who allowed this mess to occur take responsibility for their ill-advised actions. Blind loyalty and self-interest, when combined, has proved to be a disastrous model for the exercise of power in South Africa.

The grave danger that the state of the ANC places the country in should not be underestimated. The spectacular unravelling of the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and its descent into factionalism and discord, should concern every South African. By standing by Jacob Zuma through all his misadventures, the ANC dragged itself, the government, the state and the country into a lengthy period of decline.

Yet, whenever the ANC was previously called to act upon Jacob Zuma’s misdeeds they resisted. They argued that a ‘second recall would fatally wound the ANC’. In reality, this second recall has proved quite the opposite; it has resulted in widespread jubilation and celebration (even if premature at this stage), and has proved rejuvenating and hope inspiring for the majority of South Africans. The ANC threw South Africans under the bus when they needed to put the country first and self-correct from within. They simply cannot be trusted just because one leadership position has changed.

The ANC’s refusal to acknowledge the reasons why Jacob Zuma’s leadership was a failure is telling. It tells us that it is incapable of conducting an honest dialogue with itself, let alone with the rest of the country. Simply translated, this means it is incapable of self-correcting in an open, transparent manner. Instead, behind the scenes Machiavellian power will be exercised to purge undesirables, and these undesirables will be determined by those who hold the most power. It tells us that we can expect more of the same type of leadership from the ANC, that is, a leadership that makes decisions and takes actions behind closed doors and pulls strings behind the scenes to retain power; a top-down elitist model of leadership where rhetoric reigns supreme but decisions are made according to the prescripts of a cold and calculating ‘realpolitik’.

What We Don’t Want?

The question South Africans need to ask is simply whether this is the kind of democracy we want? To celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa as the ‘hero’ who has come to rescue us from the villain, is to perpetuate the very same ‘big man’ leadership model that created the room for Jacob Zuma to abuse his power. Surely this isn’t the road we should be going down again? Surely we should be going back to the drawing board and examining how power, elite networks, institutions and government functions operate? Surely if we speak of radical change then it must be deep rooted, and not merely superficial? Yet the politics of omission is the very definition of keeping things superficial, vague and non-committal. We already know what this produces. And it is up to us to prevent it from happening again.

To be sure, a purge of the ANC’s ranks is necessary, but it is unlikely. The need to ensure unity within the ANC will likely take precedence, and a fine balancing act will ensue. The technocrats will take charge again and there will be no end of great strategies and plans for a great future. However, without critical insight into the systemic and embedded fault lines within the government and state, ensuring robust and resilient progress in the long term will prove difficult. Deep reflection is required.

South Africans have had their fill of inspiring visions. What we need now are reliable, accountable implementation agencies that do not squander state funds in meandering bureaucratic processes and half-baked plans that ultimately entrench maladministration and corruption. The South African state is unique among countries of its ilk because it collects its taxes successfully, and consequently has a significant fiscal basis from which to carry out its mandate. The steady erosion of the state’s capacity to deliver on its mandate, and government’s ability to function coherently, has left the country wounded. As it limps on into this next phase, let us not fall prey to the same euphoric guff that created the space for Jacob Zuma’s leadership to lead the country astray in 2007. That is, let us not see only our hopes, dreams and desires into this situation. Let us see it for what it is; a difficult new beginning that must be closely guarded and monitored. We should not entrust power without safeguards. To do so would be to ‘do the same thing again and hope for a different result’, the very definition of insanity.

Where To From Here?

Political analysts have been swept up by the moment, making all kinds of proclamations about a new era of transparency, accountability and visionary leadership that returns South Africa to the international prominence it once enjoyed under presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Of course it is only natural that the public would want to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing president Zuma go, and to begin to hope and dream again, but it is quite another thing when political analysts begin feeding sentiment rather than providing sober analysis.

This is without doubt a critical moment. However, pretending that all it takes is this moment to turn the country around is deeply disturbing. Much more is required to turn the ship around, to get it back onto the right course. A great deal of damage has been done, internally and externally. It is not simply a matter of getting the economics right; it is a matter of doing the hard work of transforming institutions so that they cannot easily be hijacked or ‘captured’ again. It is about addressing the key systemic deficiencies of the South African state, government and economy. It is about rebuilding society’s confidence in a broken body politic. It is also about awakening the South African polis.

Instead of losing ourselves in premature celebration we need to exhale for a moment – and indeed enjoy it – but then move quickly to ensure that the pressure that existed before Jacob Zuma departed from office is still being exerted. This necessitates challenging, at every opportunity, the ANC leadership’s inability to admit to and acknowledge its deep internal troubles and problems, and how these have manifested in patently disastrous outcomes for the country. Skirting around this central reality is – in my view – not political diplomacy, but duplicity. Good leadership acknowledges, confronts and deals with its central challenges; it does not speak with two tongues but provides clear explanation of what is wrong and what needs to be done about it.

By speaking out loud what the ANC refuses to, we can force them to acknowledge the great distance between the reality they profess, and what we know to be true. And as this distance grows, like a wedge between the ANC and the people of South Africa, they will eventually be forced to humble themselves before us and confess what they know to be true in their hearts; that they are no longer an organisation that serves the people but an elite of self-serving opportunists (with some exceptions) who take power for granted. While we celebrate the possibility of change, we should not forget how we ended up here. We must consolidate our will and action to guarantee that the future we desire and deserve comes to fruition. And the first step in that direction is to air out loud the good, the bad and the unsaid.

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