Defend Truth

Opinionista

Let suffering speak: Nobody should be surprised by voter apathy — that’s what happens when politicians don’t listen to the people

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Wanting to listen to citizens and communities only when it’s election time is exactly what many voters are taking issue with. They see right through political parties for wanting to woo them only in times of elections.

“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” This quote by Cornel West is for me the very embodiment of the 2021 local government elections in South Africa. The main parties are the ones that will suffer losses in terms of support and votes. Why? Because we have become complacent about the suffering of our people. We have become corrupt and the theft and looting of public money have become commonplace at the municipal level of government.

This quote stayed with me as I was pondering these elections: “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” West shared this idea as an adaptation from The Speculative Moment in Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics.

As Domonic Rollins puts it, all of us, it is true, “shy away from listening to those who suffer”. We would not want to admit it, but alas. Often, I believe we do not want to hear about the pain of others, as we do not know how to hold or respond to others’ pain. Rollins tells us that “suffering is evident in our world; everywhere you turn you can see it. Yet, few of us allow ourselves to be moved by it”.

I know that many do not engage or speak to people in need as we travel and commute around our country. Occasionally we pass some money through the car window at traffic intersections or in the parking lots at shopping complexes. Perhaps this is to offset our guilt. Many try to shield themselves from the overwhelming pain that seems to be in the air. Yet people’s suffering — current and historic — must be engaged.

Rollins again reminds us that “a recurring theme in how we understand history, and by extension some version of the truth, is shaped through the lens, story, and perspective of those who get to tell history. And to ‘get’ to tell history means that you are positioned, privileged, and likely in power to determine what history is or is not.”

So, when I lean into Dr West’s quote, I am drawn to listen to those without power and those who have not been positioned to shape, create or produce the conditions of their experience. Yet, this is exactly what our political parties are not doing. They are not listening to the truth because they are not listening to the suffering of our people.

Let’s take the social realities of many of our people as an example — our citizens do not create the conditions of their experiences in our communities, yet they are expected to survive hunger, poverty, unemployment and inequality. Many of our people are indeed surviving through the assistance of various social grants, be it pensions, child support grants or the special Covid relief fund.

But this does not mean they must live in filth, with sewage spilling into the streets, with water shortages and electricity outages, not to mention crime.

Wanting to listen to communities and citizens only when it’s election time is exactly what many voters are taking issue with. They see right through political parties for wanting to woo them only in times of elections. Whatever happened to the lekgotlas that the government held with various communities throughout the year, to hear their plight? What are the various political parties doing between election periods to engage with citizens?

Another issue that requires attention, flowing from these elections, is the financial non-viability of many small municipalities. What I mean here is the fact that there are many small municipalities that do not have communities that can afford to pay for services, rates, taxes and various levies. In other words, these municipalities simply do not get sufficient income to be managed and run effectively. There is simply not enough money being collected from these poor communities, and as a result, we see no service delivery in these municipalities.

I know it’s very convenient and easy to always think it’s because of corruption and incompetence that there’s no service delivery, but in some instances, the above reality is also a contributing factor and hence a solution must be found. And I’m not convinced that the district development model is the only answer.

I’m saying that, if you want to know the truth about our communities, you must listen to the community members. If you want to know the truth about how your municipalities are faring in terms of service delivery, you must listen to the citizens in those municipalities. And, if you want to know about community members’ lives, you must listen to those communities. Power cannot create the truth, as it alone knows its intentions; truth rests in the impact of power on those who intimately experience it.

So, when you analyse the quote by Cornel West, it means then that if you have visionary sensibility, you are committed to loving others, and if you love others, you hate injustice. Differently put, justice is what love looks like in public. If political parties really want the truth, they should listen to those who are suffering. And don’t only do it every five years.

I cannot agree more with Dr West than when he says it is time “for a moral and spiritual awakening where a focused commitment on social justice is a driving, strengthening influence. You have to be morally fortified and spiritually intact to be a long-distance runner in this political realm… in this age of venality, when everything is for sale, and everybody is for sale”.

If we are indeed interested in the truth, as we often claim during election campaigns, then let us take time to allow suffering to speak. Otherwise, get ready for even lower voter turnouts in future — and a people that remains disaffected. DM

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