Lost in politics of the present

2014-03-20 00:00

IT’S impossible to forget that we are in the midst of a general election campaign. At the best of times, politicians reduce the complexity of life to vote-enticing simplicities, but as polling day looms, anything goes. And following President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address in February, there has been complaint from opposition parties that South Africa has deteriorated significantly under his administration.

All but one-eyed ANC diehards would agree that Zuma is not the best choice to lead a 21st-century democracy. It’s supposed to be a full-time job, but he has multiple wives, extensive family business interests and his retirement home to divert his attention. He also has mysterious gaps in his autobiography, some decidedly dodgy friends and over-reliance on political allies from the security cluster; never mind the possibility that he may yet face charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering. Staying out of jail has been a major preoccupation. There are many other ANC heavyweights with a more modern world view who would do a much better job as president. One of them is his ex-wife languishing to no apparent purpose in Addis Ababa.

For many South Africans, life has improved significantly since the 2009 elections. Basic services expand into areas that have never seen them before and the black middle class continues to grow. Last year, for the first time in history, most of it and a majority of domestic mortgage holders were black. Infrastructure projects roll out, although not as fast as the economy needs. Even serious crime, although the statistics are of arguable accuracy, appears to be down.

We tend to get lost in the politics of the present. The three political calamities of the post-apartheid period all happened under the effective prime ministership and then presidency of Thabo Mbeki, two of them while Nelson Mandela was ostensibly in charge: the abandonment of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, the arms deal, and HIV/Aids denialism. All this occurred during the first 10 years of democracy, fondly remembered as the Rainbow Nation period.

There is an argument that the RDP could have bankrupted us. But its cancellation signalled a shift of ideology away from concerns about poverty and deprivation to other priorities. There is a distinct link with the service-delivery protests of today. Similarly the problem of corruption and the scourge of the tenderpreneur have their roots in the biggest scam of the lot: the arms deal. Despite the efforts of the Seriti Commission, the enormity of this event and the damage it inflicted on civic morality, good governance and parliamentary oversight are rapidly disappearing from public consciousness. If we are headed for failed state status, a debate generating some heat at present, the arms deal can be regarded as its genesis.

The most shameful episode in post-liberation history was HIV/Aids denialism that flourished during the years Mbeki fell under the spell of various scientific charlatans. It is reckoned that 350 000 people died unnecessarily before the rollout of antiretroviral drugs. In Zuma’s administration, the minister of health is one of the success stories.

We lack the long backward view. In fact, the situation is far worse: we have an over-romantic view of the past that hides the origins of many current problems. Desmond Tutu is one of our greatest national figures, but he did us no favours by coining the term Rainbow Nation. The Mandela administration spanned a period of country-wide euphoria that embraced a wide variety of liberation experiences. It was also a time when, understandably, the nation relaxed its guard and a legion of crooks and opportunists began to take advantage of the new dispensation. Democracy for them was simply a useful device for the acquisition of permanent power.

Perhaps the greatest danger of the Zuma era has been the growing appeal of majoritarianism, tied to the racial nationalism that was another malign bequest of the Mbeki years, at the expense of constitutionalism. This is a serious threat to national diversity, our real strength, but there has yet been no major event to shake the foundations of the democratic state. The courts and public protector have held firm in the face of assault from the political right and have interpreted the Constitution for its liberal and progressive intent, although the make-up and decisions of the Judicial Services Commission raise serious concerns.

The Zuma years have seen some epic political theatre. They started with a song and dance routine about a machine gun and ended with a state-sponsored wedding for foreign cronies and the widespread belief that funding for Zuma’s luxurious extended family home at Nkandla involved the misappropriation of public funds. But retrospection suggests that what we correctly interpret as unacceptable today is simply more of the same whose origins lie in the past. It is simply exaggerated by current excesses and forms part of a continuum that stretches back as far as the apartheid era.

• letters@witness.co.za

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