South Africa

These are the times that try men’s souls

By J Brooks Spector 30 April 2014

The election is focusing on a growing litany of big and little corruptions and bureaucratic follies or worse. But is the real crisis one over the health and survival of the nation's Constitution? J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates this question.

Professional rabble-rouser and chief ideologue of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, shortly after he arrived in the New World, literally on the run from England, to rouse his new countrymen to a fuller patriotic fervour, wrote in his 1776 broadside, “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”

Paine’s meaning, of course, was crystal clear. In fact, it was so clear that George Washington, the new commander of his equally new Continential Army, had issued instructions that Paine’s pamphlet, “The American Crisis”, was to be read to every soldier in the field, so as to inspire them to be ready to face some very tough, unpleasant, dangerous times coming at them almost immediately. There would certainly be death and destruction for many, likely hunger, illness, penury and injuries for others, and there was even the possibility of a traitor’s death – if they had the ill-fortune to be captured by King George III’s troops.

Sadly, the current South African crisis seems to have no equivalent rhetorical genius right now who could help describe accurately and fully the nation’s discontents, except, perhaps in the words of Julius Malema or – more dubiously – from his aide-de-camp, Floyd Shivambu. But beyond all the justifiable anger over a revolution gone seriously awry; the corruption and rent extraction by the well-placed; the appalling waste and inefficiencies in the use of public funds; the remorseless riding roughshod over citizen grievances and anger over ill-treatment or the brushing away of their well-considered views; the efforts of those increasingly busy bag men and government officials carrying out their own business affairs inside government – or with government; the rampant inability to carry out the simplest task like the delivering of a school’s textbooks; the inability to control crime or catch the criminals and convict them; the existence without limits of those cash-burning, walking corporate dead otherwise known as state-owned enterprises; those fatuous excuses that since a certain someone didn’t, himself, ask for all those massive, gold-plated improvements at that traditional culture version of a lower middlebrow Versailles Palace he didn’t have to pay for them; there stands yet another, even graver crisis. But it is one that seems to get relatively less attention than the litany of public ills listed above.

And that crisis, of course, is the progressive sapping of the energies and mechanisms of what South Africans have been justly proud to praise “one of the best, most progressive constitutions in the world.” Even more than the colossal waste of state resources or the ineptitude in carrying out its functions, as troubling as those have been, there is the increasing denigration, belittling and sapping of the soul and structure of the country’s constitution. These assaults on the constitutional ideal should be triggering the tocsin sounds of alarm – of a village under threat by marauding bandits circling for their next incursion, or even conquest.

There are several avenues for this assault. Most obvious, these days, has been the attacks on the office of the Public Protector – and the office holder herself. Initially, numerous senior officials stonewalled requests for information about the construction work at Nkandla for many months – on spurious grounds of imminent threat to the safety of the president and the security of the state – documentation needed by the Public Protector to complete her report.

Then, when the Public Protector had finally finished her report in any case, government officials complained that the Public Protector had injected her findings into the now-imminent electoral campaign. Then, when the Public Protector’s findings were made public, the president’s men and women were quite prepared to undermine the importance of that report as an essential part of the fundamental checks and balances embodied in the constitutional process, by throwing up alternative realities.

There was an inter-ministerial report by the henchmen’s subordinates, a separate investigation to be conducted by the Special Investigations Unit, and then the smokescreen of a Parliamentary process that literally ended before it had fairly begun. With the likelihood only a few sacrificial lambs will be slaughtered (anybody remember Waterkloof Air Base and the Gupta wedding party or, presumably, the arms deal as well), the intended ability of the Public Protector’s office to, well, vigorously protect the public interest, seeps away.

Concurrently, the fecklessness of the nation’s Parliament increasingly comes into focus as well. With a party system that enforces rigorous, lock-step voting discipline, largely tossing aside a key requisite of members of a representative body to represent constituents, to appreciate their sense of party, but to deliberate openly without blind regard for party labels for the national benefit – Burke’s obligation of Parliamentarians to exercise judgement as well as party allegiance – the Parliament increasingly is just a rubber stamp for executive decisions. Even Parliamentary portfolio committees are ignored by executive departments – providing them requested documents in a dilatory fashion or even failing to appear for testimony on occasion. This becomes yet another erosion of those crucial checks and balances that were embodied in the nation’s painfully achieved national compact.

Of course, the growing failure of the nation’s security apparatus to carry out its functions within the constitutional order is another strike against the nation’s fundamental charter. These rules were designed to do away the previous regime’s virtually total disregard for a citizen’s human rights and its loose and easy use of lethal crowd control that killed or maimed so many. But this time around, in, for example, the painful, slow Marikana inquiry, the national police force’s reluctance to accept anything approaching responsibility for the debacle becomes yet another chink in the armour of the constitutional protections envisioned as crucial by South Africa’s version of the founding fathers (and mothers). Such wanton acceptance by the police for the use (again) of lethal force in routine crowd control has crept further and further into police responses to other examples of popular unhappiness and civic unrest.

Moreover, the inability of government structures to deliver humane justice to many others once they enter the court system, further saps support for government. It encourages a cynical view of a nation that has two types of justice – one for the rich and connected and one for everyone else. The astonishing display of state resources dedicated to two celebrity trials does little to diminish this cynicism – and may even reinforce such views.

But perhaps the worst of all is the cavalier, relaxed way government and senior party officials have spoken of the nation’s civic culture. When the nation’s president tells the opposition that the majority makes the rules and minority parties just have to suck it up because that is the essence of democracy; that is bad enough. But when yet another rises to tell opposition parties to relax, to stop their belly-aching; things aren’t that bad because the government’s opponents aren’t being carried out in body bags, then we may well have achieved a new low in the casuistry of public rhetoric – and a near-fatal cheapening of national discourse.

But why does none of this generate a vast sea of national loathing of the country’s present political circumstances? To some degree, of course, the rise of the EFF seems to reflect that at least some have reached such a view – although it would probably be fairer to argue that its supporters are more inclined to see their discontents through an economic prism than through a constitutional one. Agang was supposed to represent the rise of the black and white middle classes’ popular revulsion over such excesses (and bureaucratic and managerial incompetence), but it failed to ignite this supposedly thoroughly flammable material. The other opposition parties seem more often to have largely focused on economic mismanagement and a failure of the government to consult effectively with the nation over things like the bureaucratic iniquities of e-tags, rather than about deeper constitutional misdeeds.

And the supposed reformist wing of the ANC has largely held its own fire, save for those few rebels who finally called on voters to spoil their ballots or vote for a more pleasing (but small) opposition party. But, again, this has largely focused on economic inefficiency and anti-corruption grounds, rather than the more insidious undermining of the constitutional balance and order.

Perhaps South Africa must still await the rhetorical and emotional splendour of the anger and passion in the country’s own real-life version of the fictional Howard Beale, the newscaster turned biblical prophet of doom right in the midst of the evening news, in Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script for that dark, apocalyptic film, Network.

In this film, Beale tells his astonished audience (and increasingly horrified network officers) just how angry they must be, and it is worth repeating in full. Beale says, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

“We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’

“Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get MAD! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. (shouting) You’ve got to say: ‘I’m a human being, Goddammit! My life has value!

“So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell:‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’

“I want you to get up right now. Sit up. Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!‘ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!…You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!‘ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first, get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!‘ “

If only. DM

Photo: Homeless people, who are guests at the Moreleta Dutch Reformed church, watch the 2010 World Cup Group A Soccer match between South Africa and Uruguay at the church in the suburb of Pretoria June 16, 2010. Wrapped in large blankets, long coats and hats pulled low, some 2,000 homeless people streamed into a vast church in a wealthy suburb of Pretoria on Wednesday night to hear a spiritual message and watch Bafana Bafana in the World Cup. The guests at the church came from a nearby squatter camp, where small fires could be seen burning in the pitch black, to watch South Africa take on Uruguay, eat a hot meal and drink warm drinks on a bitterly cold night. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

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