Defend Truth


For democracy’s sake, mistrust the government

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Being politically ignorant has become symbolic of young people today, but, unless we wake up to a full understanding of how the African National Congress now poses a threat to democracy itself, we risk losing the freedoms we come to take for granted.

There are three things no person should ever boast about – being a drug addict, being a social media “expert” and being politically ignorant. It is, therefore, with a sense of disquiet that I note how many young South Africans proudly declare “I don’t know anything about politics, and I don’t want to know because it doesn’t affect me.” Is it any wonder then, that the ruling party can steamroll constitutional rights with gay abandon, safe in the knowledge that their constituency will do nothing to stop them?

A few columns ago, I defended political apathy among the youth by saying, “We are creatures of circumstance – we act upon and react to what life throws at us. Our circumstances allow us to become politically apathetic. Our struggle is not about politics – it’s about economics. Our struggle heroes are men like Herman Mashaba.”

Things have changed drastically since then. The government and ruling party have mounted one of the single greatest threats to democracy in South Africa by introducing a mass of new legislation, including the Protection of Information Bill and laws that would put in place a media appeals tribunal. Our circumstances have changed, drastically changed. Our situation no longer allows us to be politically apathetic.

Democracy is a demanding ideal. It requires an active constituency that keeps the government in check at all times. Democracy demands that the government should be fearful of the people. Totalitarianism on the other hand, requires nothing more than for people to do as they are told, to blindly follow their government wherever it leads and for the people never to question the government.

North Korea and Kim Jong Il have become the embodiment of the “cult of personality” in our times. We may be tempted to congratulate ourselves for escaping a similar fate in South Africa. But when I observe the almost unthinking adulation for the ANC by young people, despite the party becoming consumed by the naked plunder of state resources, corruption and the “African big man” mentality, then I begin to wonder whether there isn’t a cult of personality of sorts here, aimed not at an individual, but at a political party as a whole. It’s not as if it hasn’t happened in other African countries before.

The ANC is elevating itself to the position of sole protector of rights, as it is busy elevating itself to sole “liberator” of the people, and we are complicit in this perversion of history and government by not questioning and criticising the government. The ruling party believes that since it single-handedly wrested democracy from the hands of the apartheid government, the ANC alone can rule and alone can give or take away rights. 

Not all is well in the media, but a media appeals tribunal is not the way to go about fixing these problems. Anyone who would think the way to solve problems within the media is through government control is throwing the Constitution into the dustbin, and abandoning all pretences of living in a constitutional democracy.

The saddest part is that my generation is not equipping itself with the tools necessary to become an active participant in the democratic process. We are not reading up on critical investigative reports that expose corruption and mismanagement of public funds. We are not reading at all. We are woefully ignorant of the erosion of our rights and our freedoms. We stand idly by as the government launches a broadside attack on the media because we don’t grasp how this could possibly affect us. We’d rather concern ourselves with what Khethiwe did on “Generations” than with the future of our country.

Is it any wonder that race still dominates political discourse in this country? It’s all we know. That’s where we’re safe, where we can hold our own ground with rank clichés and bumper-sticker slogans. When macroeconomic policy or the rule of law come up, we quickly hide behind, “I don’t care about politics because it doesn’t affect me”.

The woeful absence of anything that begins to resemble an attractive opposition party aside, we are voting with our hearts, not our heads.

What a dreadful, dreadful mistake we are making. We trust our government. We trust the ANC. If we were voting for the ANC because it presented the best policies and leaders of all, and if it stood to lose its grip on power at any moment if it did anything to upset the constituency, there would be no talk of a Protection of Information Bill and there would be no attempts to muzzle the media.

We can still save this country. It’s not too late yet. The first step is to stop blindly trusting the government and the ANC. They are in power for us, not for themselves.


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