The barbarians within are eroding public trust

2009-03-14 00:00

It was the cri de coeur of old South Africa. The visceral white rallying cry at the prospect of an African National Congress government. It was the jangling alarm that “the barbarians are at the gate”.

Author J. M Coetzee used the allegory as the theme of a novel during the politically fraught seventies and it eventually helped deliver him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thabo Mbeki regularly fulminated against it as typifying a racist, colonialist subtext on the part of whites who perceived themselves as “civilised” and facing Africa’s marauding hordes.

Mbeki was right. The barbarians are not at the gate. How can they be? The bastards have stolen the gates, part of a locust-like devouring in the new South Africa of anything not nailed down.

Biographer Mark Gevisser claims of Mbeki that the former president feared that Jacob Zuma would turn this country into yet another “African kleptocracy”. We also know, or should know, from history that the locust phenomenon has nothing to do with race and everything to do with poverty.

But contrary to Mbeki’s carping, the real problem is not the assumptions of racist whites, which are a small minority of the population with waning influence. The problem is the behaviour of the ANC, the response of the black majoritarian party which under Mbeki’s leadership came to tolerate such corruption.

By doing so, it has made easy the racist conflation of corruption and blackness. The ANC apparently sees no contradiction in promising the electorate a crackdown on crime and corruption, while nominating the tainted Zuma as the next president; while cosying up to unrepentant thief Tony Yengeni; and while promising a pardon to fraudster Schabir Shaik, Zuma’s personal piggy bank.

The cost of a pervasive kleptocracy is not only in billions plundered. More insidiously, it is in the destruction of the nation’s trust in its leaders.

The findings this week by an Afrobarometer survey of dismal levels of public confidence in the government, state institutions and political parties, is then unsurprising. Over the past three years public trust has plummeted.

Trust in the ANC has dropped from 62% to 50%, in premiers from 58% to 44%, in Parliament from 58% to 41%, in provincial government from 52% to 46%, and in the judiciary from 68% to 59%. Trust in local government remains at a bleak 42%. Some 78% believe that officials committing crimes get away with it, although 71% believed a sitting president should not escape prosecution, only 28% wanted the charges against Zuma to be dropped, and only 12% thought the disbanding of the Scorpions was a good idea.

This dislocation between what the people want and what the government does, bodes ill. It is a dislocation that portends voter apathy, a citizenry filled with sullen anger, fearful of the future and lacking any confidence that the state can fulfil its primary roles of providing protection and justice.

It is ultimately a recipe for a divided and stumbling state where apparently privileged minorities — foreigners, landowners, the employed — are successively scapegoated by feral populists. It is telling that 33% of respondents said they did not trust Zuma at all, while 27% trusted him a lot.

Some of the lesson from Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is that the barbarians were never waiting at the gate, they were already within.

It is stunning how swift the moral decline within the ANC itself has been. From being an ethically based liberation movement — although most of white South Africa would disagree, the shift from resistance to revolution was agonised about — it sadly has over 15 years of government become a husk of itself.

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