The roots of the problem

2009-04-22 00:00

The African National Congress was founded by people who were intent on using their acquired Western education and Christian values for the sole purpose of liberating their fellow countrymen and women from the political and economic bondage in which they found themselves. These were Africans who believed in the unity of the oppressed regardless of social standing and tribal background.

Despite the many setbacks it suffered at the hands of the racist regime, the movement for liberation soldiered on. Those involved who were not imprisoned or exiled, worked in the underground. Those in gainful employment, while naturally looking after themselves and their families, shared what resources they had with those who did not have any. As I understand it, sharing was the hallmark of the camaraderie that prevailed in prison, exile and in the underground. People shared their homes, cars and offices for the sake of the struggle. The ultimate reward was the attainment of freedom, forever believed to be imminent in the lifetime of those involved.

When the moment of freedom came, though, there was no preparation of the previously oppressed for the proper ethical conduct on the part of those who would be entrusted with the resources of the state. It soon became a matter of every person for him or herself and government for us all. It has become a matter of the survival of the fittest and the elimination of the weak.

The appetite for material riches is insatiable. We do not seem to believe that the needs of the unfortunate poor should come before our quest to gain more than we need. You find evidence of this selfishness in the poor quality of services rendered through the tender system. You see it in the half-finished projects occasioned by the service providers’ tendency to spend the government funds first on their needs before completing the work at hand. We buy large mansions and huge motor vehicles and send our children to expensive schools. We take holidays to the rivieras of Europe and other exotic places.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am not opposed to people accumulating wealth and enjoying the fruits of their toil — as long as such wealth has been gained by legitimate means. It should not be gained at the expense of those whom the state seeks to help.

Indeed our children should go to the best schools that we can afford. However, I am certain that the founders of our glorious movement would have expended their energies more on ensuring that the schools attended by the children of those whom they lead were as equipped and modernised as those at which their own attended. Alas, it is so easy to find a black construction company owner rendering low-grade service on the basis that it is, after all, only a rural school, clinic or some other amenity that he is building. The aim is to buy cheap, poor-quality material in order to make the maximum profit imaginable.

The rot, of course, originates in the government offices themselves. Every so often we talk of monitoring and evaluation systems being in place. Yet in reality, in many instances these are non-existent. Community representatives will advise the relevant government structure not to pay a service provider until all are satisfied with the quality of the work done. Yet behind their back the payment will be made and the people will be left with an amenity they do not deserve.

Yet another irritant in government service is failure by officials — politicians and civil servants alike — to return telephone calls. These people’s phone accounts are paid by the state and they have, therefore, no reason not to return calls. Telephone communication obviates the need for a citizen to visit offices only to find the relevant official out of his or her office.

Then there is the matter of the spectacle of dog eat dog within the political sphere — comrades at each other’s throats, fighting too publicly for political positions. Whatever happened to the culture of comrades correcting each other in camera as members of the same family? We know that it is often said that politics is a dirty game. We need, however, not take the saying literally, especially when members of the same organisation are involved.

Equally abhorrent are the back-stabbing and gossiping that occurs among “comrades”. When comrades make mistakes, the way to deal with them is not to conspire to have them toppled from their positions, but to advise them to desist from their ways and to correct their errors.

This concentration of energies on fights for positions of power detracts from the work at hand — the improvement of the lives of the people. It results in the neglect of the rural areas and peri-urban residents, those who flee the poverty of their villages yet end up in the squalor of the squatter camps. While we squabble over who should be mayor, premier or even president, work comes to a standstill because those working in the offices do not know who of the two or three bulls to please.

Lastly, there is the matter of Parliament conducting public hearings on contentious policy matters. These should either be taken seriously or not be undertaken at all. In a democracy we should not be having Matatiele, Moutse or Merafong boundary disputes. People should be allowed to choose the province or municipality to which they want to belong.

Where a ruling party such as ours has a policy position on an issue, it should not go through the motions of conducting public hearings when it knows that, whatever the people say, it will proceed on the basis of its standing position. Besides, our democracy, being of the proportional representation kind, allows the voters to elect parties on the basis of their policies as outlined in their manifestos and other policy documents. There should, therefore, be no need to call on the people to abandon their business to help law-makers do their work. Too much democracy is never good for anyone, hence we have representative democracy.

As I have pointed out, the ANC is a national heritage asset. It belongs to the departed, to those living and to those who are yet to be born. We have to remind ourselves at all times of how those who walked before us would have conducted themselves and our affairs had they been with us. Of one fact I am certain — they would place the interests of the people before those of their own. Fortunately, the organisation is immensely capable of ridding itself of elements that do not live up to this standard.

• Phathekile Holomisa is an ANC MP and Contralesa president. This is an edited extract from a recent address made at an ANC fund-raising dinner in East London.

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