The greatest threat to our democracy is when people give up

2013-11-29 00:00

THERE is nothing much to steal in our little house in Athlone, except a television set and a DVD player. But the ferocity with which the thieves tried to break the Trellidoor protection on the windows, and the force with which the crowbar unhinged two back doors, you would have thought there was great wealth inside. They destroyed the place, perhaps out of frustration, and found some way of bypassing the alarm system.

Then begins a process of great frustration shared by millions of South Africans every year, as you realise how broken public and even private services really are in our country. The police take forever to come. The private security company cannot understand how its alarm system did not work, nor can it explain why its staff took so long to arrive. You cannot clean up the place because you need fingerprints, but this job is done by detectives and they are waiting for the people in Mitchells Plain to come. I am still waiting for the fingerprint guys, a week later. You have to beg the police to come, do an investigation, and compile a report. Eventually, you go to the Lansdowne Police Station and dictate the report to get that magic case number for the insurance companies.

Then, after all the waiting, you do what any other citizen does; you give up. You look around you and you know the fingerprint guys will never come. You know the police could not care less for they are overwhelmed by unsolved cases that keep piling up during this festive period, when thieves go Christmas shopping with unbelievable impunity.

“Remember the good old days,” I tweeted the other day, “they used to burgle your place after you left the house.” You know that the criminals will never be caught in a system that is inefficient, corrupt and so obviously dysfunctional. You give up.

When you see a building collapsing in Tongaat, north of Durban, and you hear allegations that this is the work of a serial fraudster who, through corrupt relations with powerful people, stays in the construction business despite a shoddy delivery record, you give up.

The commuters along the Moloto Road know that they are playing Russian roulette with their lives every single day as they travel to work to and from Pretoria, but they have given up complaining for nobody’s really listening, despite one minister after another making promises. The mothers in the off-colour flats of Heideveld and Lavender Hill have long given up on a solution to the problem of gangs; they know there is a good chance that another child will be lost the next day in the crossfire between gangs.

Here is the greatest threat to our democracy: when ordinary people give up expecting the public services they pay for through their taxes, or are promised by politicians. The middle classes will purchase private services — and even those are often unreliable — while the poor simply shrink into fear and loathing. Others, of course, take the law into their own hands and will beat a local thief to death simply because there is no justice on the rough streets of South Africa. I am much less judgmental these days of people who destroy things around them because they are simply gatvol of waiting for nothing.

More and more citizens are opting out of public schooling. More than 100 schools stand empty in Soweto. Private schools are mushrooming around the country. It is not only the privileged buying private education; the poor, show reports, are seeking low-cost independent education. I have never met so many people doing home schooling as their way out of government schooling. Other schools are already halfway out of the public system by choosing private examination options. The Cambridge Examination Syndicate, for example, sees South Africa as a growing marketplace for its O-level and A-level examinations. Why? Because growing numbers of people no longer trust the government to deliver a high-quality education that benefits their children. They have given up, in other words.

So who will be left in the most disadvantaged public schools? It will be children with no options, such as those without parents, or with unemployed parents, or with parents who do not have the time, energy or resources to move their children to schools at a distance. In other words, the desperate will feed off the crumbs of a weak and ineffectual public-school system such as in the rural Eastern Cape. The social, economic and political consequences of inaction will be catastrophic. We dare not give up.

• Jonathan Jansen is the rector of the University of the Free State.

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