Defend Truth


The state we’re in: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen, a section of the Daily Maverick. He is the former Executive Director of SECTION27 and has been a human rights activist most of his life.

It is unfortunate that most civil society activism has to focus on bad government; the diversion allows corporate criminals, environmental polluters, tax evaders and labour robbers to get away scot-free. While we all know bad government should fix itself, the danger is that it soon will be too late.

In a recent interview with the Daily Maverick, Minister for Planning in the Presidency Trevor Manuel spoke about the importance of active citizenship. He described it as something that permits “a better equilibrium in a democracy.” He defended the good parts of the ANC’s record in government and denounced unconstitutional government. He didn’t say it in as many words, but he seemed to be implying that control over the future of South Africa has not yet been won by either the good or the bad sections of our society. It hangs in the balance.

But the tipping point is nigh.

In the corridors of government, the boardrooms of business, the halls where trade unionists meet, there are both good people and bad men (for it is men who are mainly bad). Bad men plan how to rob public and private resources, plot assassinations and cover-ups. Good people fight a mainly defensive battle, trying to work out how to use the state, civil society and private resources to promote social peace and justice. The two jar continually against each other.

The bad declares itself daily in scandals and exposes. The good seems timid and shy. For that reason what we mostly see is bad government and bad South Africans. But we would be seriously mistaken if we thought this was the complete picture.

There are many good people in government. There is also evidence of a growing activist movement that campaigns for social justice, dignity, opportunity and the equal right to self-realisation. Activist organisations such as TAC, Equal Education, R2K and SECTION27 have successfully mobilised behind our Constitution to both defend and advance rights. And they have “won”. Two million people on ARVs can attest to that. School children in Limpopo can attest to that.

These campaigns have often had to target bad government and this fact more and more draws the ire of the likes of Blade Nzimande. Nzimande, for reasons known only to himself, is part of a clique that shelters and excuses bad government. They have recently made a habit of seeing NGOs and activists as part of the enemy. As evident from the obfuscation around scandals such as Nkandla, he and his merry men defend robbing from the poor and giving to the rich. They would rather that we turn a blind eye to bad government.

But we cannot. And will not.

Let’s call a Blade a Blade. It has become necessary to shine an especially bright light on bad government because it profoundly disempowers and incapacitates people. It cripples people and thereby robs us of the agency for change. The Constitution entrusts the government with people’s health, education and the protection of our resources – whichever political party governs (and it will not always be the ANC). The various arms of state are intended to be deployed as a lever for social advancement of the poor and general societal welfare of all. If the tool is broken or blunt it cannot be utilised for these ends.

It is regrettable that civil society activism has had to focus on bad government around HIV, basic education and now corruption. We readily admit that this may have led to a distorted picture of who and what corrupts our society. But that’s not our fault.

Bad business is certainly as malign as bad government. We tend to think of it as fragmented and ad hoc. But you only need to read Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble or Andrew Feinstein’s After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC to be reminded of how bad business is as organised and conspiratorial as bad government. Killing Kebble joins the dots and paints the picture about the overlap between criminality, government and business. In the words of judge Frans Kgomo it reveals a story “about corrupt civil servants as well as prominent politicians or politically connected people wining and dining with devils incarnate under cover of darkness.”

A genuine inquiry into the arms deal would surely unravel a similar story – that’s why a not so hidden hand is trying to hobble it.

Killing Kebble is an eye-opener to the evil plots that get hatched in the most ordinary of places, in our pubs and parks. These plots are just as likely to be going on right now, as they were in the swirling miasma that surrounded Kebble and his cronies. But unfortunately because civil society is forced to focus on bad government corporate criminals, environmental polluters, tax evaders, labour robbers have a diversion that allows them to get away scot-free. They must laugh all the way to their Swiss banks.

Bad government should therefore fix itself. That may seem a contradiction in terms, but at least there is now a recognition that it is necessary.

Today there is growing talk of the need for a “capable state”.  Sonorous words. But the time for poetic wordplay is fast running out. With each passing day parts of the state gets further corrupted and incapable. For example, during my five years as deputy chairman of the South African National AIDS Council (Sanac) I had time for close observation of the higher echelons of government. Many senior civil servants do not seem to see the line that makes their conduct unethical and criminal.

There is more furniture in many government departments than people, but expensive board tables and chairs don’t do the work. Perhaps their existence explains a subconscious need to have numerous meetings, task teams and committees which often lead nowhere. At times I could only conclude that government “succeeds” by default and not design. But it is undeniable now that large parts of it are not working. What keeps the wheels turning daily is more just human momentum, self-allocation of tasks, than actual co-ordination and effective planning.

Finally it is doubtful whether a capable state can be built on a quagmire of corruption. In his 2013 budget speech Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan admitted that: “Combating corruption] is a difficult task with too many points of resistance… There are also too many people who have a stake in keeping the system the way it is.” He called for “a special effort from all of us in government, assisted by people in business and broader society. And it will take time.”

Gordhan’s words evoke sympathy and scepticism in equal measures, particularly in the context an Executive and Presidency which are as much a part of the problem as they are of the solution. But is there really time? And does this government of good and bad have the legitimacy to marshal and lead society against corruption and for a capable state?

That is a matter for us all to determine. DM


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