No power to the people

2013-06-07 00:00

MY world has been shattered. Mattel has “upgraded” the Scrabble app on Facebook.

And, as is so often true, the “upgrade” is worse than the original. About 3 500 players commented in the first 15 hours of New Scrabble’s life, all variants on the basic theme: “New Scrabble sucks! Bring back the old Scrabble!”

Have we heard from Mattel, Scrabble’s maker? Not a chance. The sense of despair when something is taken away from you by a big kid and is then broken, and your cry for justice is not heard, is too familiar.

And if I was able to communicate with the powers that be, I would warn them that one of the major precipitants of depression is a sense of loss of control. People who feel in overall control of their lives are resilient.

Have you ever had to work under one of those psycho bosses, the kind who move the goal posts and never consult, negotiate with or consider their staff?

The gloom, hopelessness and depression in places like this are palpable. And that’s how I’m feeling as a South African today.

Citizens in democracies have a few ways to feel that they have agency in their own countries, that they have some input. One is obvious: they vote for the political party, the policies of which they think best represent their wishes, and then they trust their members of Parliament to act vigorously to implement and defend those policies.

Well, the recent Guptagate “debate” in Parliament was an encapsulation of the ineffectuality of our Parliament. The government withheld the Gupta report from Parliament, releasing it to the media as the debate started — so opposition members “debated” with one hand tied behind their backs.

It was a charade, a piece of theatre so the government could sit back and say: “Well, we had a debate in Parliament, you know.”

And we all know it. We know our sleeping or absent MPs aren’t working on our behalf.

Another way citizens experience agency is knowing that certain instruments of justice operate on their behalf. If people commit a crime, the justice system hunts them down, prosecutes them on our behalf and sees that justice is done. I asked a woman involved in welfare work how much she trusts the police (she has to deal with them a lot). She looked at me and raised her index finger and thumb in the shape of a big “O”. Oh, there are some decent ones, she said, but the overall consensus seems to be that the police are not actually working for us, the citizens.

Meanwhile, several hammer blows have badly damaged the reputation of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) recently. Think of J. Arthur Brown, the Anene Booysen mess and the hash the NPA made of the Andries Tatane case. And just last week, we heard that Glynnis Breytenbach, the prosecutor accused of all sorts of malfeasance by the NPA, was so totally not guilty that the NPA is going to have to do a lot of repair work on its reputation to make South Africans believe that it is driven by a desire to seek justice on our behalf, and not by less noble motives.

Another way citizens can feel they are agents is to take up the cudgels when they fail to get heard, and protest. The idea is that the powers that be get their knickers in a knot about their upset citizens and so they negotiate. After all, we are their bosses, right? We pay their salaries, we fund their programmes and we can fire them if they don’t work on our behalf.

But that’s not working. Take the e-tolling thing.

We all know that infrastructure must be paid for, but as has been clearly stated, many of us have issues with how this deal works — the enormous amount it costs to collect the tolls (and police unpaid tolls), the money leaving South Africa to enrich others, rather than being ploughed back into our own country, with that faint, ineffable scent that might hint at corruption, and the lack of adequate consultation and transparency. And over and over again, the South African National Roads Agency spokespeople, patronising noses in the air, accuse us of not understanding that roads must be paid for.

Huh? Why don’t you listen and answer the questions we’re actually asking?

No wonder we feel like we’ve no say, no agency, no control.

The powers that be — will you listen? This has to stop. You want a country with voomah, an economy firing on all cylinders, but you can’t get it with a citizenry that’s sunk in depression. The bosses — the citizens — demand that you work on their behalf. Not yours. Geddit?

• Mandi Smallhorne is a journalist and editor. The views expressed are her own.

 — Fin24.

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