Public opinion must hold sway

2014-04-07 10:00

Forgive me, Dear Reader, for I am about to break a promise.

A promise I made to myself that I would take a long break from this Nkandla matter.

At the time it seemed a rational promise.

In my mind I surmised that enough had been written and said about this famous monument to corruption.

There was also this little thing called an election that is sadly competing for attention with the corruption monument and a certain murder trial.

Then I listened to the national conversation and it became clear that the issue was getting bigger and the anger was becoming more intense.

In private conversations, on the airwaves, in cyberspace and in print, South Africans were spewing volcanic amounts of bile.

On Gauteng’s Power FM, talk show presenter Thabiso Tema tried his best to get the audience to discuss other topics, but they were having none of it.

Nkandla it was going to be. The anger cut across classes and geographic locales.

Contrary to the ANC’s misguided belief, the working classes are as exercised about Nkandla as the middle and upper classes.

The anger over Nkandla is because it has now become the very manifestation of all that is wrong in the country: corruption, maladministration, moral decay, official lies, bad leadership and political arrogance.

In the face of this anger, the nation’s political masters are burying their heads in the sand and refusing to lead.

As the deadline approached for President Jacob Zuma to submit his response to Parliament, I hoped against hope that he would surprise us and act like the leader of the republic rather than a fugitive from justice.

I had hoped that the counsel of ANC elders, such as Pallo Jordan, Ben Turok, Zola Skweyiya and Andrew Mlangeni, would have sunk into his head.

It was naive of me, I know.

But then again, I’m also still holding on to the hope that Orlando Pirates will snatch the Premier Soccer League title and Tottenham Hotspur will sneak into the European Champions League by claiming fourth spot in the Barclays Premiership.

Zuma did disappoint, thus confirming my naivety.

His response to Parliament sent the national anger levels up even further.

At what point will the ANC leadership act to defuse this anger by doing the right thing?

In doing so, they should look back to the last time the nation was this divided and in this state of depression.

It was back in the early 2000s when then president Thabo Mbeki was swimming against science and compassion, and frustrating the war against HIV/Aids.

He was refusing to listen to voices clamouring for action to stem the spread of the epidemic, prevent deaths and ensure those living with the disease were able to have productive lives.

The louder the voices grew, the more defensive he became.

ANC leaders and members rallied around their leader, warning those who were critical of Mbeki’s stance that the ANC would “defend our president” to the end.

It was a horrible time. The nation was tense. Debates were crude.

Then early in 2002, some wise heads in the ANC and the government realised that the standoff was not only damaging the war against Aids, but undermining national cohesion.

The country was at war with itself over an issue there should have been broad consensus and united action around.

At a meeting of the National Executive Committee in April of that year, ANC members concluded that the party and the government could not continue to be so fundamentally on the wrong side of public opinion.

Something had to be wrong when the “leader of society” could be at such variance with the society he was leading.

Out of this came the historic April 17 2002 turnaround, which stated that henceforth government policy would be based on the “premise that HIV causes Aids”.

A comprehensive anti-Aids strategy was to be devised, and a massive prevention and treatment plan rolled out.

The foundations of today’s successes against Aids were laid on that day.

What South Africa needs now is for some key ANC leaders to have the wisdom and courage to intervene in the same way that some of their predecessors did in 2002.

Leaders who realise that they are very much on the wrong side of public opinion and that they cannot rely on legal gymnastics in dealing with what is clearly an ethical and moral issue.

The blind defence of something they all know is wrong will only breed more anger.

And the thing about popular anger is that you just never know what it can breed and what its consequences can be.

The nation needs ANC insiders who will be able to realise that long after the elections, long after moths and rodents have feasted on the Nkandla thatch, long after Zuma has moved on, there will still be a republic called South Africa.

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