South African political culture is replete with catchphrases and campaigns that provide an insight into the impulses which drive those in public office. The slogans and campaigns range from bizarre and quirky to motivational and aspirational. Despite the variations in tone and content, the aim mostly remains the same: to win votes or to retain public office.
The infamous “Stop Zuma”, and the ill-advised “Asinavalo”, which loosely translates to “We are unbothered”, spring to mind.
More recently, “Thuma Mina” – meaning “Send Me” – caught the public imagination. Drawn from a Hugh Masekela song, this particular catchphrase was accompanied by promises of engendering a new, post-Zuma dynamic in public office, one underscored by ethical behaviour and ethical leadership. Briefly, it seemed possible for South Africa to escape the corruption trap which had ensnared most facets of the public service – aided and abetted, of course, by the equally culpable private sector.
But these political mottos and campaigns can prove to be a double-edged sword. The unravelling often happens the moment the gap between the stated ideal and a murky reality closes. In most cases, this occurs when the slogan is not followed or matched by an effective and sustained implementation campaign to capitalise on goodwill and buy-in.
The initial enthusiasm then loses steam and begins giving way to a creeping cynicism, which can quickly turn to disillusionment. That disappointment, the gnawing sense of unfulfilled promises and anxieties about the future, currently colours perceptions about public office and the political class.
The “Thuma Mina” moment and the attendant disconnect between its stated goals and outcomes encapsulates an element in sloganeering that is often neglected and overlooked. That is the existence of political continuities and discontinuities. The continuities in this instance were an inherited state and government machinery primarily shaped by capture and a political environment dominated by intrigue. A singular moment or catchphrase could not have erased or undone those impulses. In fact, it magnified them.
Political succession birthed that slogan. But change enforced by political succession is not a neat, linear event. It is messy. It encounters resistance from entrenched and vested interests. It is a high-stakes game. There is much to lose politically and materially. Equally, there is much to gain politically and materially.
The political process of change is fluid, more so in a political environment such as South Africa’s, where the spoils of victory give rise to volatile contestation. Resistance then often takes on a sinister complexion. That’s because attempts at reforming and re-orienting public office towards ethical behaviour and leadership unfolded within the context of a political environment that was already deep in a state of flux.
That, in part, accounts for the concerted subversion of the collective call to serve and inculcate ethical behaviour and leadership, which “Thuma Mina” embodied. The motto had promised “a year of change… a year of renewal… a year of hope”. That rallying call was supposed to help the country make a clean break from “the era of discord, disunity and disillusionment”.
Most importantly, that political slogan was intended to assist South Africans in leaving “behind… the era of diminishing trust in public institutions and weakened confidence in our country’s leaders”.
“Amasela aba imali ka Rhilumente mawabanjwe” (thieves who… [steal] public funds should be arrested and prosecuted). That is one of the many striking lines from the “Thuma Mina” promise.
However, political reality has long caught up with the ideal. The continuities and impulses of the lost nine years are proving difficult to shake off. That is notwithstanding the strides made in some institutions, but the programme of reform has been overwhelmed in large part by the underlying dysfunction inherited from the era of discord.
This also highlights another peculiarity of South African political culture – the myth of self-correction. It is a fleeting ideal. BM/DM