We are at a dead end, recycling the same worn-out mantras and the same tired and ineffective political leaders. The poverty of our leadership was brought home to me when my 18-year-old daughter, after watching the proceedings of the Zondo commission, proclaimed the current ANC leaders to be “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
They have pretended to work for us all this time while working only for themselves, and dishonestly so, she said. Getting ready to vote for the first time in national elections in 2024, she asked me why, after all the stealing and corruption, people still returned the ANC to power. I wanted to give her a good answer but all I came up with were excuses… not enough for my daughter and her generation.
What happened to us?
I felt the painful sting of betrayal as I thought about a response. For the past 26 years, the majority of people in South Africa have entrusted the ruling ANC government with their lives. They place their trust in those leaders who followed Tata Madiba, believing they would walk in his footsteps and embrace his leadership qualities of honesty, integrity and selfless commitment.
People cast their vote for the current ANC leadership, hopeful that they would remain true to the values espoused in the Freedom Charter. They entrust their vote to the ANC in gratitude for those who fought so valiantly for freedom and democracy.
But even before 1994, during the negotiated settlement, those who sensed a challenge to their power and hegemony set about spending billions to co-opt the respected leaders of organisations like the ANC, the trade unions, Umkhonto weSizwe and the South African Communist Party.
These trusted leaders became instant millionaires and soon, overcome by personal greed, worked only in their interest and those of the elite few who had bought their allegiance. While many were initially happy that black people were succeeding in business and were becoming rich, we hoped that they would share this wealth and use this newfound economic power to develop an economic system that was inclusive of all.
But it is apparent that in pursuing their own economic success they ceased to fight to secure prosperity for all South Africans, especially those who placed them in power.
We know from our own history that those who rule, especially if challenged, use any means necessary to hold on to power. This trait manifests irrespective of life view or political ideology.
The apartheid regime did not rule by brute force alone but used an arsenal of tactics to stay in power. It deployed covert intelligence units recruited from within the ranks of the liberation movement to pose as activists and to infiltrate progressive organisations such as the ANC. These spies and agents provocateurs gathered information, sowed dissent from within and passed on essential information that would result in arrests, disappearances and assassinations of ANC cadres.
The apartheid government used leaders from institutions that people respected and loved to disseminate falsehoods and lies. Leading priests quoted from scriptures to prove that it was God who created white people as the superior race. Scientists published research papers to show that African people were intellectually deficient. Learned economists warned about the “rooi gevaar” and peddled the idea that economic equality was an unattainable myth promoted by communists bent on taking over the world.
Teachers taught a false history about the superior achievements of European civilisations, without even a hint of the contributions of Africans to science, technology and the arts. They used the power of popular media to reinforce their racist ideology and sustain their economic privilege.
Back then we were bold in our rejection of false ideology; rigorous in unmasking the traitors among us and courageous in our pursuit of truth and justice. Since 1994, the new government under ANC leadership has done well to remove racial and gender discriminatory legislation from our statutes. It framed a Constitution and bold Bill of Rights grounded in the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of our human rights and freedoms.
Nobody could have anticipated that our tried and tested leaders would be seduced into betraying their loyal constituents; defer so callously our dreams of an equitable and fair future, or switch their allegiance to serving only their own interests and those of the few.
Little has been done by our leaders to address the gross social and economic inequality that exists in our country. Instead, they steal and pillage state resources intended to lift the poor out of poverty.
The Covid-19 pandemic is ruining our already weak economy, tail-ending a slide into recession that began in 2019. The wealthiest 1% is arguably the only sector in our economy that, since 1994, has grown exponentially and yet receives the most government support during the pandemic.
We see the unjustifiable ballooning of the public administration and the treacherous collusion between officials of the state and private sectors. The market share of the middle classes has shrunk to 20% while the majority of working-class people slip further and further into abject poverty.
We are doomed to economic failure if the state fails to intervene decisively to regulate big business and contain their unethical and uncompetitive business practices. We need to protect our established and emerging farmers against the stifling impact of the big retailers.
The mining sector cannot continue to export our mineral wealth without stringent policies that enforce beneficiation and environmental compliance. We need an economic plan that supports the informal sector and small and medium-sized enterprises, and unlocks their potential to create jobs. No economy can reach its full potential if the majority of the population is excluded and left behind.
The Zondo commission reveals the full scale of cunning and deceit.
The most damning revelation is the treacherous alliance between corrupt public servants and the commercial sector. We see clear proof that policy and institutional reforms necessary to improve governance is undermined by collusion between powerful firms and state officials in order to extract substantial private gain.
To mitigate these high risks, South Africa requires an aggressive criminal prosecution strategy and a well-resourced department of justice to act against high-level economic crimes; to remove the culpable from their positions and punish them without fear or favour.
Come 2024, we cannot continue to vote like fools.
We must see through these lies and false promises. We have to subject our present leaders to fresh scrutiny and admit to their acts of betrayal. We must become more discerning in our judgement and more circumspect when voting leaders into power.
We must learn to separate truth from lies and realise that corrupt and treacherous acts can no longer be overlooked in order to show gratitude for good deeds of the past. We need a fresh cohort selected from within our own communities, schools, universities, places of work, religious, cultural and sporting institutions, which demonstrate through their actions that they know what it means to truly serve.
We must identify those among us who demonstrate a passionate, selfless commitment to serve and shift our attention to develop a new pipeline of political leaders and public officials. We must mark those who can be trusted to remain true to those who choose them – who will not be seduced by power or greed.
We must nurture and support those whose moral and ethical actions earn our respect, and we should encourage them to step forward and lead.
To my dear daughter, I have only a few words of advice:
Realise that your most powerful weapon against this flagrant abuse of power remains your right to vote – to cast your ballot for those who place the interest of the working men and women of our country first, and uphold those progressive values that I know you hold dear.
Come 2024. Take back your power and vote for change. DM
The author acknowledges Delecia Forbes for her editorial assistance.