Strikes, violent protests, murder, the rule of drug lords and corruption dominate our headlines. Like Guptagate, all of this exposes the faultlines in our society. Talk show hosts and analysts, with their sharpened tools of the trade, strive to find answers in this toxic mix of rumor and fact. But the question is whether we are really sitting on a powder keg – and what the root causes are of our despair and hopelessness.
I can only speak for myself. I am angry. Today, like the majority of South Africans, I feel like a dagger has been plunged into the heart and soul of our nation. It is laced with the poison of corruption.
I look at Guptagate and see how a family unknown in its homeland, India, has come to our shores and buried itself deep into the bosom of our State, with dire consequences for the democracy we fought so hard to win. I sense that someone not in the highest echelons of power is about to be made the scapegoat.
I sense that new Marikana strikes are a clarion call about the rot that is seeping into our social fabric. When leadership in the union movement and political movement lose their credibility and are out of touch with the feelings of their members, then our society is heading towards a sharp decline. Stir into this already noxious atmosphere arbitrary assassinations of local leaders, done in public and with impunity, and we have the making of a new tragedy.
Now, more than ever, we need decisive leadership on all sides.
We need our politicians to realise that a legitimate government, representing the moral authority and will of our people, cannot rule trough scandals. The proximity of power brokers, influence peddlers with open access to powerful elected party and state officials, breaks down our trust in public institutions. It destroys hope that the democracy means anything beyond the politically connected wealthy elites.
Last week in Nigeria, a long-standing trade union leader said to me, “We have a highly discredited political system based on patronage, dominated by ‘Big Men’. The consequences include the debilitating poverty which leaves close to two-thirds of the population living on less than 1$ a day. The endemic violence in our society is driven by the marginalisation of the majority of young Nigerians.”
His advice was that South Africans need to take a stand in the battle against corruption, or even the good men and women in government will be overwhelmed. “Do not go the way we have gone across many of our countries. Crony capitalism has destroyed our potential as Africa in the past few decades. The African people have not benefited from our growth. It is the predatory elites who have expropriated the wealth of Africa. They extract rents, corrupt our state officials and move to the next territory they can exploit.”
There is no dispute that we are sitting on a powder keg of unmet expectations. The vast majority of South Africans survive on social grants. Half of our citizens are hungry, struggling to put food on their table to feed their children each night. So the brazen display of extravagance in Sun City points to elites in both our countries out of touch with the reality of poverty experienced by the majority. Even the Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, once spoke of the vulgarity of “conspicuous consumption.” He was recognising the fact that a third of the world’s poor live in his country.
Our failed education system is churning out millions of pupils with very few skills and no jobs; unlikely to have the dignity of labour in their lifetime. They see the visible and growing inequality. Often it is shoved into their faces.
Last week I shared a platform with Michael Zulu, an outspoken musician from Zambia. He spoke about the new AIDS pandemic. But his AIDS narrative was about “air-conditioning induced decisions syndrome.” It was about politicians who visit our slums and villages in their air-conditioned 4x4s and their security details. It was about them buying votes, making speeches and more promises. Like him, I wish our leaders would just keep their mouths shut and listen to the grievances of our people eking out a precarious living. The reality is that sitting in their comfortable air-conditioned offices, they are oblivious to the grinding poverty and hardship faced by the majority.
It’s not about how many schools we have built. It’s about the quality of the education, having teachers present in the classrooms who are prepared to teach. It’s about provision of textbooks, toilets, laboratories and libraries. It’s about having ARVs in the clinics and public servants who don’t demand bribes of us for government services to which we have a constitutional right.
But a culture of immunity prevails. Who can blame the general population? They see billions squandered by national, provincial and local leaders. They see many senior state officials using public money like it is a personal slush fund. In a society that creates very few opportunities for the millions of young people, it breeds an anger and sense of entitlement.
We face the danger of becoming a model of crony capitalism, where shady characters corrode our institutions and make them a breeding ground for friends, family and their collaborators.
What can we do?
We need to break the umbilical cord of corrupt elites and the State. We need to resist the incursions of the securocrats in the state who want to silence the media and be the new gatekeepers of information access. It was courageous investigative journalists who shed light on this breach of our national security. It was fearless activists who exposed the Limpopo textbook scandal. It is outstanding journalists who bring the painful news from El Dorado Park and Marikana.
We need to stand up and be active citizens who demand efficiency and performance from our leaders. The demands are simple. Listen to us. Understand the servant leadership qualities the generation of OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani left to us. The people will always know better than their leaders. Just do the job that we pay you for, from the taxes you collect from us.
That is not just the plea from the desperate moms and sisters of Eldorado Park. This the impassioned call from each and every one of us, the citizens of our beautiful country. DM
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky