Let the vitriol begin

2008-10-13 00:00

Despite their successes at Beijing, the British were in a foul mood when I visited them recently and it ain’t got anything to do with the soggiest summer in a decade. No, it’s the man of the moment at Number 10.

If you listen to the British media, Gordon Brown is officially the least popular prime minister since anyone started counting. And there have been many to count for the British are past masters at public loathing of the political hoi polloi. The British electorate considers it their democratic right, quite possibly even their duty, to shame the very public servants they themselves have elected and especially — although not exclusively — should any be suspected of slacking.

Until recently, by contrast, we in South Africa have had it rough. With a saint like Madiba at the helm of our infant democracy, public loathing has been given short shrift for far longer than has been good for us.

Thankfully the skulduggery of the slackers in the parliamentary circus that followed our democratic honeymoon period has brought some to their senses, demolished political sentimentality and severely dented any sense of rainbow nation pride. There is nothing like trapping errant fingers in the clasp of the public purse to restore the electorate’s confidence in the efficacy of public ridicule and disdain. With an election just around the corner, now is a good time to resume the vitriol in earnest.

I was pondering all this while rushing between showers along London’s Pall Mall and was struck by how mediocre we South Africans have become in our scorn of those who aspire to public office. Compared to the contempt with which the average voting Brit holds their erstwhile prime minister, we seem easy fodder for the political megalomaniacs and the outright nutcases and opportunists that traverse the African continent.

Compare, for instance, how the British house their head of government. The British prime minister runs one of the largest economies on Earth from a terraced house on Downing Street. My point is that if you want to run Britain, you must be prepared to downsize your material expectations and downsize considerably. Downsize isn’t in the vocabulary of the average African aspirant leader. Downtrodden, perhaps, but only in the campaign rhetoric that precedes political elevation.

A flat above the shop is as much as Brown gets in a dimly lit street off Whitehall. And notice it’s number 10 Downing Street — not even number 1. Every way you look at it, leading the Brits is every bit the thankless task it jolly well ought to be in a healthy democracy. But not so in Africa.

Keeping those who seek public office humble, accountable and in touch with the so-called downtrodden proletariat they purport to represent and (dare I say it?) serve, ought to at least require a politician to reside in their constituency. Ideally they’ll bank on-shore too, send their children to local schools and attempt to live lives that are at least superficially consistent with their professed calling. But in South Africa seemingly, we voters make no such demands.

The public cried foul when one senior British politician reserved a parking space for his personal fitness instructor. Imagine what the scrutinising British electorate would have done with a scandal of the magnitude of South Africa’s arms deal.

For as long as the electorate refuses to stick the boot in — metaphorically speaking of course — the excesses of African leadership will persist. It would be difficult to find a nation on the planet that has waxed more lyrically about transparent and open democracy than our South African republic. Sadly, today, it’s almost all talk. Transparent democracy, by definition, re-quires scrutiny and interrogation. Ask Gordon Public-Pecked Brown.

No, it seems that the British might be right after all: the solution does lie with a box, but possibly not the ballot box we have come to revere, if not worship in South Africa. Palace or bedsitter above the shop — which box would you put your president in?

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