Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 3 March 2015

Comparisons should be aspirational, not self-congratulatory

Whenever a major debate pertaining good governance arises in South Africa, we tend toward comparisons. This is a good thing; it means that we as South Africans recognise that we are part of a global system of varying forms of governance and that there is a standard of minimum norms that applies to basic tenets such as democracy, human rights, efficient service delivery and governance. But does our gratitude for not being as bad as others mean we are ultimately settling for less?

Put simply, we look externally and compare ourselves to what else is happening in the world, both good and bad, and hold government to a standard that says: “This is not North Korea; we expect better.”

The comparison journey is not only limited to geography, where we look beyond our own borders and see how we measure up. It also extends through the annals of history, since South Africa has a lot of dark history to learn lessons from; lessons that should prevent us from making the same criminal mistakes – those of regimes under colonialism and Apartheid with which we were burdened.

But in as much as this history is filled with lessons of what to avoid, it has become a cop-out. Recently we have heard much said about how things went wrong in South Africa from 1652 onwards, and rightly so. Much went wrong after 1652: settlement, colonialism, Apartheid, migrant labour, dispossession, sjamboks, school children being shot at, slavery and the inequality these systems entrenched – inequality we still sit with today. Now, twenty-one years into democracy, all South Africans have the right to elect a government that represents all our interests, and the government we put into power should serve our interests above all else. Difficult as it well may be, since we chose to venture down a path of forgiveness, reconciliation and even amnesty; it is the responsibility of this government to redress all the wrongs of the past.

It is impossible to set right all that went wrong in the preceding 342 years leading to 1994, but what people want, in the alternative, is a feeling that all is being done to rectify the wrongs of the past and that we have accountable people at the top. What we don’t need is to be told how our present government is not as bad as the Apartheid blokes or that at least we are not as bad as war-torn and Al Shabaab-controlled parts of Somalia.

The best case to illustrate our poor comparative reasoning stems from South Africa’s favourite “N-word” – Nkandla. It will be gaining greater popularity over the next two weeks or so. #PayBackTheMoney will in all likelihood break the South African share of the internet since the president is due to address the nation once more on 11 March, the day on which he is supposed to answer questions from Parliament on whether he will in fact ever pay back the money.

Reports over the weekend suggested the opposite, quoting the president through his spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, who said that President Zuma would only answer six questions in Parliament and that he had given a written reply to the questions around Nkandla. These answers will be supposedly made available to the Legislature and to the public in due course. The upheaval this will cause in Parliament is yet to be seen and there is very little chance, if any, that the president will own up and pay a single cent. The DA and EFF might as well dream on; their questions will never be answered satisfactorily. The president will never, even if Jesus returns, ever accept any liability for Nkandla, either financially or otherwise, but the mechanisms of democracy still demand that he appear before our legislature and face the barrage of questions anyway.

In respect of comparisons, there are those that then revert to Apartheid, making one of two arguments. The first is in defence of Apartheid (why anyone would still think that Verwoerd’s brainchild is defensible is beyond logic, but anyway) – these point to the notion that Nkandla would not have happened then and much of the corruption we report on was absent. Simply put, a system that benefits one demographic of the population, at the economic, social, political and civil expense of everyone else, does not need corruption as a means of unjust beneficiation – the system itself is corrupt in its design.

The second argument is at the other end of the scale, justifying the corruption burdening much of South Africa’s governance today. This argument purports that due to amnesty and a failure to dig into the looting of state coffers that supposedly happened under Apartheid, Nkandla and many other corruption scandals are not such a big deal. It is an argument that calls to mind six-year-olds pointing at each other and shouting: “He did it first! She did it first!”

So I concede that Apartheid was designed to benefit some at the expense of others, that the system was innately corrupt and warped, but it never purported to benefit me nor anyone that was not part of the white racial demographic. It went to the extent of disowning people born here, with a generational attachment to South Africa that stretched beyond Van Riebeeck’s settlement, and stripped them of their citizenship. It assigned people to ‘Homelands’ based on their surnames and first languages and required them to use passports – passes – to travel, seeking permission to move about in the country of their birth.

Excuse me when I say that PW Botha, BJ Vorster, Hendrik Verwoerd or any of the other villains from our Apartheid past had no interest in the wellbeing of myself, my ancestors or anyone with a higher concentration of melanin. It therefore criminal to compare that illegitimate system of governance with what we have today. The only valid comparison is that this government needs to ensure that the unequal distribution of resources and the crime against humanity that Apartheid was is never again repeated, rather than our leaders patting themselves on the back for not being as bad. Anything, even a piece of coal, is a diamond when compared to a turd.

What this government, and any other government succeeding it under our Constitutional system of governance, needs to understand is that it only exists to serve all who live in this land’s interests. Sorry, President Zuma, but through your legal representatives in October last year, corruption is not just a Western paradigm. It is a paradigm universally accepted as unfair, a paradigm where one man at the head of the most unequal society in the world would be happy to renovate his personal residence to the tune of a quarter of a billion rand and not feel the need to take some accountability. This paradigm has seen some of those in his employ feel that they can hide forensic reports that tell tales of R2 million being misspent on car hire outside of office hours, nappies and other personal amenities out of the NEDLAC fund. It is a paradigm in which two Ambassadors internationally embarrass us by claiming to have PhDs that do not exist and it is a paradigm where many in South Africa wait for basic services such as water and sanitation to this day.

Apartheid was and will always be an abhorrent part of our history, but it cannot still be the measuring scale we apply in determining how well we are doing. Maybe we should try to emulate the economic growth of some of our competitors, or the service delivery of some of the best examples in of the social welfare state, or the governance of countries that pride themselves on honesty and the service of the people. If we continue to look at Apartheid or celebrate the fact that we are better than, say, Swaziland or Zimbabwe, then when do we become aspirational? When do we actually expect more of ourselves and our leaders? DM

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