There’s a funny thing about South Africa and to understand it, you have to live here. It’s about the difference in the behaviour of politicians, depending on their geographic location. It shows itself in some very interesting ways. In Western Cape and Gauteng you will find that politicians, by and large, seem to behave better than in other places.
Think of what happens in Limpopo, or the other two northern provinces. Politicians generally don’t do interviews with the independent press. Rather they publish massive ads in newspapers featuring pictures of themselves, often with sunglasses, and consider that PR.
The reason it doesn’t happen in Gauteng or Western Cape boils down to this. In Western Cape they could lose power (and have done so), and in Gauteng the media are too strong. And therein lies a lesson for the rest of the country.
If Julius Malema had his tenders with Ekhuruleni or Tshwane, we would have known about it ages ago. In the end, it was only because of the Sunday Times, with its national reach and the ability to give two reporters a week to nail down the story, that we now have an idea of where some of his money comes from. But just think of all the other stuff that must be happening in those provinces, and what people are getting away with there.
The abuse of power by politicians is threatening to pull this country apart. We are a constitutional democracy. Our constitution is strongly weighted in favour of the little guy, because it was written by the people who were on the receiving end of racism, cruelty and an assortment of other terrible injustices. That much everyone agrees upon.
And the little guy in South Africa voted four times overwhelmingly for the political movement that brought us this wonderful constitution. But there’s no way the same little guy is in favour of the VIP Protection Unit arresting and assaulting a student just because he gave the big man the finger. That’s something that used to happen in Zaire, and now happens in North Korea, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Libya. But not here.
The greatest of the great, Nelson Mandela, is on record that he is not like Robert Mugabe and is not going to be driven around in convoys and protected by bullies. But different people are in power now. How things have changed.
In what’s possibly an even more dangerous case, we have the justice minister appointing acting judges because he feels like it. Can you imagine if Mokotedi Mpshe had been appointed to the Western Cape bench? And was then asked by that judge president to hear a case involving the powers of provincial and national government? You would then have a former government employee, who was involved in withdrawing criminal charges against the current president, appointed to an acting judgeship by that president’s minister, and then being asked to hear a hugely political case involving the ruling party and the main opposition, by a judge president who was largely saved by that same minister (think back to the JSC hearings into Judge John Hlophe and the role Jeff Radebe seems to have played in them).
Talk about a successful deployment policy.
That’s all constitutionally very important, but what’s really happening is that political power is now turning into purchasing power. And we’re not quoting ourselves here. We’re paraphrasing Jeremy Cronin, Kgalema Motlanthe and many others.
It really is about the power that results in money. Tenders, government contracts, cash. Which is why it is mostly happening in places where the opposition and independent media presence is at its weakest. Malema is from Limpopo, which obviously helps, but Cope and the DA between them polled only 10% of the vote. Thus, being poor, there isn’t a big enough media market to fund investigative journalism.
So what is one to do? There’s the usual raging against the machine in which many will indulge. The fact is, our system of proportional representation, and the historical impetus behind people voting along identity lines, means that whoever is in power is going to have a big majority for a long, long time. And as a result, they’re not going to feel any heat, any pressure, to behave. It’s not anyone’s fault, and if it wasn’t the ANC in power, whoever it was would probably behave in the same way. And even then, it’s not really the fault of whichever party. It’s the fault of the people who join the party with their eyes on the main chance.
The ideals of liberation and justice that sustained the ANC through the dark years of oppressive regime are long forgotten. The new generation doesn’t really care about it anymore.
So the question in front of all of us now is: How to stop this growing abuse of power? How do we make sure we have a government that cares about this country and actually knows what to do about it? How do we, as society at large, make sure there are real consequences for VIP guards who behave like thugs, as untouchables who can do anything to anyone and get away with it. How do we make sure this country doesn’t go to the cleaners? And how do we get this done soon?
Historically speaking, this kind of thing needs strong institutions, respect for the separation of powers and good people in key positions. In the case of the VIP unit, the fact that this happened in a province governed by another party may mean something happens (although the police are a national competence so provincial powers are pretty limited). But the first port of call would be for the police to conduct a proper investigation. We know that’s not going to happen. Then, you would go to a police station and lay a charge. You would ask a prosecutor to press the case. But they’re employed by Menzi Simelane. Who happens to believe the executive should overrule the NPA. So you could bring a private prosecution, at vast personal expense. But then you come before a judge whose career was saved by a minister.
A pretty rotten situation, isn’t it?
But there is a fair amount of hope and, strangely, it lies within the ANC itself. Here’s why: the ANC is stirring. Again. Its members are discussing recent events. They’re looking at President Jacob Zuma. They will have tales to tell about other people who were treated as was that student. They’ll see how contracts are going to people who pop into the township in their Cayenne, pick up a contract, and once their work there is done, usually shoddily, bugger off. They’ll start to see through the crap spouted by a podgy young man who claims to be one of them, and yet wears a watch that would sustain 10 families for a year.
At this moment, you think we’re naïve, don’t you? You think we’re smoking our collective socks. But you forget that all of this happened before.
ANC members told their branches and regions to vote for Zuma at Polokwane precisely because they felt he was abusing his power. The alliance partners are already mobilising against the “tenderpreneurs”. And don’t be fooled, this lifestyle audit idea has massive legs. It’s a very clever ploy, and it’s going to tangle up Malema and Co. for ages. And the people who are losing out from these tenders are getting cleverer and louder about it. So that when they’re told to hand out cash first, they know to call the media and get something done about it.
The other reason for hope is that the media and various other non-governmental institutions are getting stronger. The march of technology means that a student beaten up by VIP guards gets his story out very quickly. As people now do business by email, there are no letters that can be burnt when the investigators come knocking. Electronic trails are more difficult to hide. (Famously, Alfred Sirven, the businessman in the middle of the French Elf Aquitaine corruption scandal, ate his mobile phone’s SIM card when he was arrested).
There are some things we all need to do. We need to shout and scream when someone in government violates our rights unjustly. We need to shout and scream when we see it happen to someone else. And we need to watch closely as people slowly, very slowly start to abandon voting by identity and start to vote along class and policy lines.
And then, day and night, we need to heed Pius Langa’s quotation of that old saw, “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance”.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
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