The end of our political adolescence

All democracies are flawed. There are very few countries where the people actually rule, and where the exercise of political power is not distant from the day to day lives of citizens. But the successful ones – like New Zealand and Switzerland – have kept closely to the idea that the will of people is continuously heard, and locally implemented. Most importantly, in successful democracies, access to violence is strictly controlled in trusted hands.

South Africa has, miraculously, been given the privilege of democracy, and has, over the last 20 years, behaved much like a talented teenager getting to grips with life. We would be naive to expect much more, and we can so far be proud of many indications of a very impressive civil society, and of many substantial individuals, acting vigorously to bring our democracy as close as possible to the ideal. But we are far from street-wise and politically savvy, and our flaws need our constant attention, especially now.

Just like a nearly-grown-up will eventually meet, and be outraged by, the local street thug, and will have to learn to generally deal with the wide range of human behaviour, we are now finding that we have to expressly articulate our opinion and moral viewpoints into action – outrage alone is not sufficient, and there is no “but that goes without saying!” – our opponents are capable only of the most primitive discourse. We also need to act. Ethics need to be articulated, and acted upon, if we are to take our next step to political adulthood.

We have to calmly remind ourselves that all exercise of political power (also our own democratic power) is ultimately based upon the threat of violence, and what the best democracies have been able to do in order to distance themselves from it, is to hand it to well managed proxies – the police and the military. But let there be no doubt that power ultimately resides where we decide to put the guns.

If we are to be adults in democracy, it is then incumbent upon us to control our sanctioned, exclusive access to violence with an iron hand. In this respect, our beloved teenager has failed. We have allowed law enforcement to be handed to people with a deep contempt for the rule of law.

While all the talk about Zuma’s power base as a patronage network is, of course, true, it is not the whole, awful truth. That patronage network has exclusive access to the means of violence, and we have not properly aired this great and present danger in our national discourse, even after Marikana. We all know about the humiliating demise of any credibility of the police, but the army, for instance, remains unexamined in public discourse. We would do well to remember that the Zuma faction is nothing if not tactically astute – first the armoury (done), then the treasury (almost there…). The courts and chapter nine institutions remain a problem, but their decisions can be ignored if, as a last resort, the guns are brought into play.

The stakes are high, and the Zuma faction is feeling severe heat – when will they consider this last resort? It is perhaps time to take a cold, hard look at what the people who are in the process of capturing our new democracy might do if they are cornered, and how we contain the fallout if they are driven to reach for that final, raw and desperate means. I am not suggesting that they will do so soon, since there are other immediate avenues open to them, such as preventing elections, or corrupting them, but we must think about how far their power now extends.

There is now no doubt that they care nothing for the people of this country, and economic suffering is irrelevant to them. Our former president is demonstrably willing to let us slide into junk status and endure the resulting dismal suffering, and the reason is not that he doesn’t understand finance or geopolitics – it is simply that he doesn’t care. His project is of greater importance than the mere ants in his nest, and his potential for punishing us is immense.

As I write, society is already crippled – we can’t effectively prosecute criminals. When court orders and the constitution are routinely vigorously opposed or ignored, they are enforceable only by arrest, and we no longer have the means to execute that. One is driven to ask why it is that Ramaphosa and the others in the ANC who oppose Zuma have not acted, and the answer seems close to the bone – the means to act is dependent on access to violence, and they don’t have that. The situation is dire.

But we can take heart from the fact that there are only two parties in our political spectrum who are not democrats – the ANC and the EFF. They are, with the advent of Zuma, cut from the same cloth. The one spawned the other, after all (perhaps to farm out the really dirty work to a sufficient distance). The only thing that distinguishes them is that the one is absolutely dependent on control, and the other is slavering in the wings, waiting for chaos. All the other parties in South Africa dream of a working democracy.

Together, the ANC and EFF  are indistinguishable from the National Party in 1970 – the result of our political adolescence. We elected them, eyes wide shut. We have to accept that only the ANC members can rid us of the corrupt faction in the ANC, whether through parliament, or via the ANC, by having the backbone to be counted.  We are growing up. Even the ANC has private dreams of democracy, reflected in their increasingly estranged factions.

I would therefore put it to all ANC parliamentarians : You are a South African, you have been handed the privileges of a crucial public office, and you have dreamed with the rest of us. But to dream, you have to be asleep. Your adolescence is over – it is time to see the strength and beauty of the people of this country, and act according to your conscience. You know now that the ANC will eventually shed the criminals – where will you be when the organisation returns to its roots? Will you still be in a position to contribute? Will you have crossed the threshold into adulthood, as your rightful destiny? Do you see your possible futures clearly?

This is the only time I will ever quote Zuma: “Listen carefully…” : We are in crisis. If you don’t act now, Zuma will forever silence you. What will you tell your children?

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