The fires in Knysna and its surrounds brought out the very best and very worst in South African society. On the really good side, volunteer fire fighters arrived from all over the country, and watching Working on Fire teams singing and dancing in a car park before heading off to risk their lives in the smoke and flames brought a lump to the throat. Local people unaffected by the fires opened their hearts and homes to those displaced, and the humanitarian aid response was, and continues to be outstanding.
The countrywide outpouring of sympathy and support across all race groups was heartening to see, with Thapelo Keva Mapilo (@KoolkidTeakay) summing it up beautifully on Twitter in only 128 characters:
“A home is a home, shack, flat, mansion. The loss of any home, anywhere, deserves the support and sympathy of ALL South Africans”.
Then there were the downright ugly sentiments of mean-spirited, sick-minded people who had nothing better to do during this disaster than to wish others harm. Intent on spewing their glee onto the internet they couldn’t be bothered to find out that the largest population group at risk was, in fact, Black and not the Whites they were hoping would perish.
What we can no longer ignore, though, is that the racial divide which should have been closed or at least significantly narrowed after 23 years of “democracy”, is now widening. It has taken the common cause of the Garden Route tragedy to bring people closer together again, at least temporarily. How long this will last once the embers have cooled, and self-serving politicians have had their “Kodak Moments” in Knysna prior to returning to their divisive rhetoric, can probably be measured in microseconds, but South Africans in general have reacted admirably, and in unity, to a disaster in which people have been left with nothing.
Yet what concern do we show for those who are unaffected by fire or natural disaster and who have nothing to begin with? Is it their fault that they are unemployable because of our seriously defective basic education system? Is it their fault that restrictive labour laws deter employment rather than encourage it? Is it their fault that trade unions serve to protect the already employed, rather than encouraging additional employment? I can already hear “Yes, it is their own fault for voting ANC”, but seriously! What little they may have in terms of social grants, RDP housing and municipal indigent support stems from ANC policies, so they can hardly be blamed for refusing to bite the hand that feeds them. It is also one of many reasons why they may choose not to vote at all, rather than vote for another party against the ANC.
The idiom common cause also takes on new significance when looked at in terms of a natural disaster of fire versus the man-made disaster of poverty. When a catastrophe such as the Garden Route fires encompasses all of us we react as a unified society, but when it comes to everyday grinding poverty it’s no longer our problem, it’s their problem whoever they might be. So why can we not see all the problems of South Africa as our common cause?
I believe it is because to one extent or another we are still living intellectually, culturally and emotionally as independent societies within our previous racial classifications. It remains a case of us and them, which is dry kindling to politicians prepared to fan the flames of division regardless of the cost. South African politics, from the days of recently much debated Colonialism, through the apartheid euphemism of “Separate Development”, to the multiple B’s and E’s of ANC policies, have always been about division and not unity. Politicians of average intellect survive on social division, and political leaders who have no vision beyond their quest for power, thrive on it.
It takes a glance at the two main political parties, where ANC membership will not rid itself of its compromised leader, and DA leadership compromised with a recalcitrant member, to realise how perverse the party system has become. The playground antics of South African politicians are a case of Forget about the ball, let’s get on with the game, where “the ball” is the people and “the game” is the acquisition of power. Factionalism is the order of the day, with politicians squabbling internally to capture power over their party, in the hope it will carry them to the ultimate prize of capturing the country. Take a moment to think about the following:
· Why are none of the parties willing to provide transparency in their funding? Does this mean they are all captives of their major donors? When a hard decision needs to be taken, who do you think they will they listen to – the people, or their moneybags?
· Why are none of the parties proposing changes to the electoral system that will make them more directly accountable to the electorate? Do you think party leaders will willingly give up their absolute power over deployees and return some of that power to the people? and,
· Why are none of the parties even thinking about proposing changes to the Constitution to provide enforceable penalties for those “Honourables” who are proven to be dishonourable, particularly those in breach of their oath of office for example? Could it be that this is also too much accountability for them, that they are content with meaningless apologies that have no real consequences?
While policies may differ, fundamentally there are no significant operational differences between the three main parties. The ANC’s NEC, the DA’s Federal Executive, and the EFF’s Central Command Team all maintain direct control over their cadres. Even a DA Executive Mayor in a local council cannot change members of their own Executive Committee without first asking permission from Cape Town.
Political behaviour is guided by ambition, and is influenced by whether they are already in power or are still striving for power. So why are so many mainly White South Africans convinced that things will change in 2019 when, they believe, the DA will take control of the country, either outright or through coalitions? The circumstances that allowed the ANC to run roughshod over the Constitution and capture the state will not have changed. The way parties are funded and operate will not have changed, and the system of unaccountability to the electorate will not have changed. So what guarantees does the electorate have that a new governing party will not eventually slide to the same depths of corruption? We certainly cannot just cross our fingers and hope new leadership will be more ethical - after all, even Robert Mugabe started off well. If we accept the term political ethics is an oxymoron, we should not only be looking to change the governing party. We should also be looking to fix the underlying weaknesses in our Constitution and electoral systems, which have allowed unaccountable and therefore corruptible politicians to bring us to the brink of disaster.
We desperately need a new social narrative, one that promotes inclusivity, provides dignity in the form of self-sufficiency, and pushes back against racially divisive and other populist or “revolutionary” rhetoric. The problem is not race, it is poverty. Our politicians are simply playing the racial blame game, because this is the easiest excuse for their own lack of vision beyond accumulating personal power and wealth. If our present political establishment is not capable of making necessary changes, then who can we look to?
In a brilliant article titled “So, where have all the good leaders gone?” social entrepreneur Gordon D’Silva, OBE, made the following observations:
“If we are to achieve real seismic change, it will require the creators of wealth to provide leadership capable of achieving sustainable prosperity for the whole community and not exclusively to the elite few. It will require tomorrow’s innovators in business to accept – what for me is the blindingly obvious – that the greatest risk to financial capital in the 21st Century will be the unyielding rise of global inequality. In the absence of social innovators and leaders capable of bursting the festering boil of unrelenting inequality, we will continue to experience the emergence and growth of nationalist movements and a return to protectionist markets, closed borders and greater insecurity experienced by all.”
I think it is past time for us to take a long hard look at ourselves, and decide whether we want to continue feeding the fires of racial division sown by political rhetoric, or whether we are prepared to make a concerted effort to bridge the poverty gap - if not for ourselves, then at least for the sake of future generations. Must the whole country burn before we realise that we are in this together, that we must find solutions together, and that we can no longer afford to let politicians continue stealing from us while feeding the flames of hatred?