There’s an enduring myth that floats on the ether of the internet and is occasionally tattooed onto the letters page of some or other newspaper. The story goes like this: one day the masses of South Africa will wake up and vote for the DA. The country will be delivered from the ravages of the ANC and magical, groovy times will be had by all.
Some prophesy this happening by the time the 2019 national/provincial elections roll around, while others claim that the signs portend the messianic age beginning from 2024. Those that believe in it believe with all the same fervour as their opposites, who claim that the ANC will rule until the Christian god returns.
There are related popular myths, such as The Shattering of The Axis of the Tripartite Alliance. Here the break-up of the ANC/ Cosatu/ SACP political alliance is irreversible and a two- or three-party system is formed with a regular, democratic transfer of power.
There are, of course, the ghost stories full of schlock horror and menance: The Descent into the Heart of Deepest Darkest Africa; Zombie Marxist Cannibal Onslaught; Attack of the Shop Stewards. Most of the time they’re dated, with their 70s-era production values and race-essential arguments, but I enjoy them in an ironic hipster way.
Some repeat these myths because they believe that a multi-party democratic system needs a regular transfer of power – or at least the possibility of a regular transfer of power – to keep politicians honest. The evidence suggests there’s a need for more than one party to be in power, and that this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for curbing the excesses of politicians.
On the other side of the coin, there are myths about the cleansing and rebirth of the ANC. The stains of corruption will be washed away and the former glory of the movement will be restored. These myths are also essentialist in nature; there is a core set of values that the ANC embodies and the present-day problems are just the wandering in the desert that precedes the arrival in the Promised Land. Occasionally there is an appeal to the evils that the white man brought from across the sea, like corruption and homosexuality.
As I’ve said before, I don’t have a dog in the fight. Some of the finest people I have met work in politics or are civil servants. My friend who is a career politician is still my friend. My distrust and suspicion is reserved for the institutions and the bureaucracy that wheezes through them.
I’m not here to cheerlead or favour one set of myths over another. I neither pray for the ANC’s speedy downfall, nor do I hope for its glorious resurrection. I do think that its internal structures need a thorough overhaul, but I’m not a card-carrying member, so I can’t influence that process.
My fence-sitting doesn’t preclude me from passing judgement over the events of the past few weeks at Marikana or the last five years under a Zuma-led ANC. Things are very very bad under the Zuma administration. The police are just another gang at best. There are serious threats to our hard-won freedoms.
The situation is most dire, but myth-telling is no substitute for actually influencing an outcome. Talking (and lecturing, and warning of impending doom) is not action. Maybe the ANC will lose power sooner rather than later. Maybe it will wake up when its popular support dips closer to 50% and it will undergo its reformation, retaining power.
Maybe the DA will lead South Africa wisely and judiciously. More likely, it would expend a lot of energy in maintaining its majority. It might only be in power through a coalition. Maybe its culture and values will also change for the worse over time. The myths told by both sides are very simple versions (or perversions) of the truth, where the cultural values of one’s party are essentially good and will eventually revert to the mean.
Those that place the most stock in their myths do not place themselves in the middle of their narratives. We’re happy to outsource our political activity, for the most part. The gains of democracy are safe if we vote for the right party, and the fates will take care of the rest.
The ANC has labelled the events at Marikana a tragedy, and Marikana is truly a tragedy in the classic sense of the word. It is an event that was inevitable given the increasing erosion of our social, legal and political institutions. Our police service was changed into a police force and increasingly militarised. Labour relations have become more aggressive and antagonistic, and strikes more violent. Throughout all of this, state institutions and powers have been co-opted by the securocrats and protected business interests close to Zuma.
Our response to this and our broader social ills has been an awkward hybrid of apathy and hope. We wait for government to save us, to sort out issues of inequality, unemployment, high levels of violence, gender inequalities and so on. Currently we’re waiting for government to save us from government itself.
We don’t question whether the R100m cheque given to the Department of Women and Other People Who Aren’t Men could be better spent on Lifeline and rape crisis centres, or even on training and education for young people on women’s rights.
We can scrape by with a police force that is poorly trained, unprofessional and corrupt as long as it kills and assaults people we don’t know, people who probably deserved what they got. We can normalise poverty and unemployment. If we are rich enough, we can lubricate the machine enough to keep it going. Maybe it’s a bribe paid for driving drunk and maybe it’s an extra coin for a beggar.
Hand-wringing may be cheaper than Nivea, but it will not bring the reforms we need. A handover of power from one party to another would just be a confirmation that we have avoided the worst excesses of a nation in transition. It doesn’t bring us closer to solving structural problems in our economy or political system.
We have a long-standing culture in South Africa of deference to authority and a reliance on the state. This approach is failing us. The state has failed to deliver decent education and healthcare and now it is failing in its most basic and fundamental job, which is to use its monopoly on legal force to protect our rights. If there is one positive thing that can come from the deaths and torture of so many miners at the hands of the state, it is that we need to limit and contain the state’s power wherever we can.
I’ve listed some suggested reforms that we can agitate for as ordinary citizens. The list is not exhaustive and some (or most) of the suggestions may not be as clever as I think they are. The point of the exercise is to think up non-partisan, non-factional reforms that will deepen democracy and prevent the concentration of power in the hands of an elite few.
Firstly, there are some election reforms that could make politicians and political parties work harder for our votes and increase their accountability. These include: mid-term by-elections for all ward councillors and a possible process for recalling of non-performing councillors; the election of more than one councillor per ward, bringing multiparty politics to the ward level; and a mix of constituency-based and proportional representation in the national assembly.
A serious call from the electorate for party financing records and all awarded tenders to be made available for public viewing could do a lot more to improve transparency and reduce corruption than any number of pledges or beaten breasts from politicians who promise to stamp out corruption.
Greater liability, and the threat of civil and criminal action, could contribute significantly to stamping out violence by unions and price-fixing by big companies. We should agitate for reforms here also.
There are many other reforms and ideas that can be debated, ranging from citizen participation in evaluating government to possibly legislating ways for government to fund its own oversight capability in the form of research into public finance spending. The ideas are there to be developed and refined but they will achieve nothing of practical value without the agitation and pressure from ordinary people.
We have become so used to praising or vilifying the ruling party that we’ve convinced ourselves that politics is attempted by other people. Civil society doesn’t happen to other people. The Section 27s and Corruption Watches of our time appreciate our praise and kind wishes but what they really need is our hours and resources. DM
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"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon