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South Africa: A five-legged camel turning and heading to greener pastures


Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

I remember attending a function in 1998 when Alec Irwin, then minister of trade and industry, said “no matter how fast and efficiently we make the animal run – government is a five-legged camel.” And that was in the days when the ANC was speaking with one voice, acting with energy and care for its constituents, the Constitution and the common good of the country.

In the world of Zuma, Brexit, Trump and Le Pen it is easy to become demoralised as every fresh news cycle unfurls. In Judith February’s excellent article, “There are no quick fixes to SA’s current political crisis”, her basic premise is correct. We all want an overnight magic-wand solution. And government, with its executive branch and all its agendas, the judiciary, with legal precedent that has to be enacted and  applied to ensure progress, and enormous bureaucracy that does the logistical work that needs to happen to roll out those changes – simply does not work fast.

Government, and by that I mean democratic government, cannot work fast – it never has. I remember attending a function in 1998 when Alec Irwin, then minister of trade and industry, said “no matter how fast and efficiently we make the animal run – government is a five-legged camel.” And that was in the days when the ANC was speaking with one voice, acting with energy and care for its constituents, the Constitution and the common good of the country.

Dictatorships work fast. The man at the top (because let’s face it, there have not been many female dictators – watch this NDZ space!) just cuts through laws, red tape and opposition to enact his decision. Hence Hitler and Mussolini’s fast economic turnaround.

However, February ends her article with these two sentences.

“The quotient of hope still glimmers however faintly for us at the southernmost tip. Yet, one cannot help feeling that this is our one last chance to reshape our politics.”

And here is where I take issue with her. The ANC may have thumbed their nose at the Constitutional Court, but that has not stopped the courts from being effective blocks to government incompetence and “state capture”. This week’s ruling blocking the nuclear deal is a great example of a potentially disastrous policy being stopped in its tracks. Let’s be clear, this had more potential to wreak financial mayhem than even the double removal of Pravin Gordhan from the Finance Ministry.

Our traditional view of democracy is that it stands on four pillars: the two elected legs – President and Parliament; the appointed leg – the law; and the unofficial leg – the press. But we forget that all of these depend on the fifth and most important branch of democracy – the voter – the people. As Alec Irwin said – it is a five-legged camel.

So let’s look at the current strength and efficiency of all those legs.

First, the crippled leg. We know the Presidency is bent out of shape and is fighting the necessary splints it needs to straighten the broken bones. The internal power struggle at the top of the ANC, the self-serving and disastrous choices and actions of Zuma et al are what we read about – but they are not the whole story. They are actually a story of fractures, torn ligaments and strained tendons.

The leg which is exercising its muscles and trying to strengthen itself daily is Parliament. We are still a democracy – 38% of the country did not vote for the ANC, that is 7.2 million voters – which means that there are a 154 people in Parliament who are fighting for democracy.

Not to mention those members of the ANC who are equally distressed by the executive’s treatment of Parliament and due process, from Jackson Mthembu to Makhosi Khoza – who are obviously battling between the choice of staying loyal to their oath to serve the Constitution and to their party. We don’t know how many of them there are, but Gordhan is still a Member of Parliament. Will he think loyalty to the current leadership of the ANC is more important than loyalty to his oath as a parliamentarian? And will he think that loyalty to the current leadership is more important than a vote which might help the ANC in the future?

Then there is a leg that walks slowly and steadily every day – the most dependable leg of our country. The judiciary. They have stayed true to the Constitution, remained above factional politics and ruled without “fear or favour”. Just as we have seen in America, where every new poorly prepared “executive order” from Trump has been stopped by the courts, showing him up to be the empty-headed blow-hard he is, so too in South Africa. From the nuclear deal, to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, to Berning Ntlemeza, to Nkandla, the courts have protected us and worked for us all. And most important, they have worked for the forgotten 50% – the ANC voter base.

Then there is the flashy leg that runs, jumps and does high kicks, and occasionally stumbles – our free press. Daily Maverick, amaBhungane, The Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, eNCA, Talk Radio 702 chase down and expose stories that we would never know about, encourage dialogue and help drive the national agenda.

This marathon runner and foot-weary slogger is hampered by being tied to a fat, bloated, redundant leg – the “government press” of the ANC, the Independent Media Group, ANN7 etc, who make no bones about being “government propaganda machines”. And by government let’s be clear – they are just presidential propaganda machines. But their stories don’t lead the agenda – they are constantly on the flat, back foot while the “free press” actually does the running. Unfortunately they are a conduit to the most important leg of democracy.

And so we come to fifth leg of the camel. The voter. It is easy to forget the sea change that happened last year, when the country’s richest city, capital city, and the historic heartland of the ANC were all lost by the ruling party in an election cycle that should be a pretty clear indication of where we are headed. There are those who say that change is not happening fast enough in those cities and in the municipalities that got new coalition governments. But government is government and the five-legged camel analogy still stands here. It is just over seven months since these new administrations took power, and they are still operating on ANC budgets that they inherited.

But already we see housing deeds being handed over steadily and speedily, metro police being staffed, trained, supported and funded, and corruption being dealt with at a fast and furious pace. We might not feel it yet, but the camel’s head has been turned in the direction of efficient, clean and principled government. And the ship of the desert is much like any ship, the bigger the ship headed into the storm, the  harder it is to slow the momentum, change course and steer it into safer waters. But the turn is happening.  Slowly at first, but every day it increases speed and we move further into waters where there is safe harbour and abundant fishing.

In other words, the fifth leg, the voter, still is and always will be the most important leg of our democracy. Rather than ending with a reference to “our last chance to reshape our politics”, February should have quoted Refiloe Nt’sekhe (also in the Daily Maverick) when she wrote:

“Perhaps the act of the Nkandla village people standing up against corruption, and not voting for the ANC in their ward, is the beginning of an age where South Africans realise the innate power of their vote.”

Because despite the Guptas and Gigaba, the president knows that he does not control the ground under and around his actual home. Soon the president will be retiring to that daily reminder.

The five-legged camel is turning. Three of its legs are heading steadily in one direction, and the fourth is wavering on whether to join them. The leg under the head may be marching steadily one way, but the body politic is very clearly on a different path. And they are heading in a direction that the president, his press or his providential funders will NOT enjoy.

So, Judith February, you are right – there are no quick fixes! But the camel is turning and heading to greener pastures. We may not feel the change yet but it is there, and it is happening. Now let’s tell the most important leg, that all-important fifth leg, the voters, that they can ignore the regurgitating, spitting and bellowing, irascible head of the camel. South Africans, especially the forgotten 50%, have to hear, again and again and again and again, that “they have the power to determine the course of the country”. Because if we get that right, hope is not a faint glimmer on the horizon; it is a light that gets brighter and brighter as we get closer to the end of the tunnel through this fairground house of horrors. DM


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