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?

The Second South African Transition

Back in the comparatively halcyon days of Codesa, when Buffalo Ramaphosa still had legitimate reason to smile, we thought long and hard about how we want to live. We produced a truly great constitution, but it is often forgotten that during that conversation, in the midst of the horse trading, a model akin to the Swiss canton system was also proposed. Leon Louw and Frances Kendall wrote a informative book about the political and economic benefits of local autonomy and policies designed to maximize individual liberty.

This idea was seen as a Balkanisation proposal, and contributed to the failure of the second plenary session of Codesa in 1992 – the mere presence of the then Nationalist government had tainted this suggestion as an extension of the homelands policy, and it was, understandably, roundly rejected. Those were heady days. I remember sitting speechless at a cricket match as an energetic, roaring mexican wave thundered around the packed stadium. We were elated, and wanted to shout! We were disappointingly innocent, then.

Almost 3 decades later, as the swarm of locusts emitted from the ANC are firmly settled into the green pastures of the public purse, we find the country in turmoil precisely because a strong central government has dismally failed its citizens. The standard script for liberation movements has run its course – we are steeped in epidemic nepotism, humiliating corruption, and widespread violence once again. Every single crucial social and political structure has been all but destroyed. The judiciary, the rule of law, the public protector and the constitution are under attack, the police force is deeply disgraced, our schooling is amongst the worst in the world and our hospitals are from Hades. The land restitution we promised ourselves during the constitution-making process – as a precondition for the entrenchment of property rights in the new democracy, no less – has come to naught.

Clearly, we need to think again about how we want to live, and how to bring about decent lives for us all.

But this is already happening – we turn out to have an incredibly robust and impressive civil society. Individuals, companies and organisations are acting for the common good everywhere, protecting the judiciary, supporting schools, policing communities, addressing land issues, steadily uncovering and prosecuting corruption, with a dignified press doing a first-rate job.

We have seen Hugh Glenister take on the full tornado of state power, with his own money, to ensure independence for our corruption fighting units. And finally, after more than 4 years of struggle, with assistance from the Helen Suzman Foundation, he won.

While the vineyards burned in the Cape, models for sharing land with the original owners already existed – witness the case of Solms Delta in Franschoek, where landowners put their farms up as collateral for the purchase of an adjacent farm by the workers. Solms asks, “why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Why, indeed. A seed has clearly been sown. May it show verdant growth.

At a Cape Town TED talk event, I came across Louise Van Rhyn, who is co-opting senior managers from the business community to partner with our battered and depressed school principals, bringing new life to our broken schools. This kind of community action needs to grow, if we are to grow.

Recently, our young people have (finally) risen from their apathetic stupor, and we no longer have to lament a generation of middle-class mall puppies. They have found a voice, and serious issues to address. For me, this means that we are now equipped for our second transition.

At every flashpoint, South Africans are getting their hands out of their sleeves. People and organisations like these define the potency of a society giving birth to a working democracy. This is clearly a slow and tortuous process, much more onerous than many of us had imagined, but the country is unstoppably at work, even if its government is not. From these small tributaries of effort flows a country-wide river of hope and toil, which no organisation can stop, even with a monopoly on violence and the ability to tax. Our determination is grim, but endless.

All of this despite government. There are many, many other examples, and I am filled with hope.

The promise of our people is ignited locally, sourced from the robust hearts and minds of an extraordinary citizenry and from companies and NGOs who see the problems in their area, and act day by day to not only keep hope alive, but also to deliver real impact on the ground. Is the activity of citizens not producing a training school for South Africans to turn away from centrist hopes, and run their lives locally? Are we perhaps seeing a new route, growing organically in our communities, to the kind of structures pointed out by Louw and Kendall in 1986?

It may be time, then, to revisit the basic idea of greater direct funding and autonomy of local communities, not blindly copying, but keeping in mind, and learning from the relatively accessible lessons from the Swiss cantons. A sound start would be to rethink our electoral system, which alienates communities from their representatives, perpetuates cynical manipulation of the franchise, and offers no possibility of recall or timely accountability. How do we gain and entrench the right to speak and act between elections? How do we oppose central government interference in local matters? Other than the expensive mercy of the highest courts, we currently have no such mechanisms.

We have to accept the possibility that as our democracy emerges from its infancy, we may well have to consider amendments to the constitution, mindful of its precious foundational and protective nature. One does not lightly tinker with something so important, and it may be difficult to do, but civil society may have to prioritise this, before the ANC does.

And so, true to our robust and imaginative nature, if new political parties are in the wings, they will come not only from the socialist labour block. It is likely to be something entirely different, and it could just be something which further empowers the obvious energy, strength and beauty of South African civil society. It is long overdue.

If we don’t give up, and continue to oppose with all our might the voracious feeding on the carcass of our 1994 hopes, we might again, all grown up and with eyes wide open this time, hear the sturdy thud of one collective heart.


You will never steal from us again

I had a dream on 23 October 2015, while South African students were igniting a worldwide protest against corruption, and its effect on fee structures at universities:
We waited until Zuma went to jail, and we recovered Nkandla in a asset forfeiture.
Then, since we are clearly inclined to many holidays, we declared a new one – Nkandla day – and on the first commemoration, we gathered in our thousands, and calmly and ceremonially burned the place to the ground.
We then consecrated and preserved the site of the main building’s burnt out shell, so that future generations and our elected politicians could visit the site,and read the commemoration text :
“You will never steal from us again”
After all, is trust in representatives not a central idea of a democracy?
We kept some of the buildings and refurbished them as an upmarket tourist destination, and handed it to the surrounding community as a source of work and income. Apparently, the roads were already good in that area.
O, wait – and the firepool was turned into a meditation crucible where we keep a perpetual flame burning to remind us that South Africans eventually fix what is broken, and that underneath our unshared histories and social fractures runs a raging river of solidarity.