The Dos and Don'ts of Democracy

2017-12-17 06:12

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Speculation about who is likely to become ANC president at this weekend’s national conference has been uppermost in the minds of newshounds, commentators and the general public over the past year. It is an enticing topic that has secured far more attention than any policy positions the party is likely to adopt.

Most of the ANC’s presidential candidates have spent far more time talking about party unity than about any discernible policy proposals that delegates are expected to mull over, debate and resolve. Instead, their mantra has been party unity.

This is unsurprising, given the strife that has engulfed the ANC in recent years.

The ANC has enjoyed hegemonic power for almost a generation. By 2019, when the next national elections take place, there will be millions of voters who have never known any party in government other than the ANC.

Such long periods of political dominance have a profound effect on society – and begin to take the shape of a governing party’s best and worst attributes. This happens whether that party intends this or not. Every action or omission forms part of the legacy it leaves behind.

Governing parties with an unassailable majority – such that the ANC has enjoyed to date – have the opportunity to make and implement policy almost at will. They can pass laws and direct public resources in ways that set new objectives for the rest of society.

The behaviour of its leaders, their vices included, sets an example for the rest of society because leadership defines the limits of what is acceptable – if not through its policy positions, then through sheer force of example, good or bad.

When significant political shifts occur, even opposition parties can have a deep imprint on the national psyche and alter the course of social and political morality. In the US, for instance, Barack Obama’s presidency appears to have cultivated a climate in which Republicans wantonly lied to exploit the fears of sections of white America that were fundamentally traumatised by the reality of having a black leader.

They were told, and believed, that their country had been “lost”. The subtext was that a black American was not American enough and would never embody the values of “real America”. This fear drove the momentum of the Tea Party – allied with the conservative wing of the Republican Party – which, for a long time, held the Republicans hostage. Its indelible mark remains to this day with the election of Donald Trump as president, his band of bigots and hypocrites in tow.

The Republicans’ propensity to tell outrageous lies about Obama, and the receptiveness of many to those lies, eventually conspired to procure a president who is widely acknowledged to be a racist and a pathological liar. Far from being an anomaly, Trump symbolises the US’s ethical deformities and its occupation of the political centre.

Republicans now dominate both houses of the US congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and have Trump firmly entrenched in the White House. Yet, despite being in power, they still cannot stop lying because doing so has become an integral part of their political DNA.

Instead of demonstrating mature leadership, Republicans are encouraging an alarming tolerance for other forms of malfeasance, such as confirming judiciary candidates who are patently unfit for the role; or protecting a misogynist president with a long history of sexual harassment and abuse, to which he has, at least once, admitted as much on camera.

A state of institutional decline and grand corruption

It is hard to believe this is the same US that not even a generation ago attempted to impeach a president for having an affair with an intern.

In the process of questioning the role of politicians in such a scenario, a far deeper question emerges: Why did US citizens vote for such a grotesque administration?

The answer is to be found a decade earlier, when it seems that more than at any other point in history, the Republicans decided to embrace misfits and their lies as a way of appealing to white fears in order to regain power.

Today’s US is a country where a substantial number of its citizens are hostage to irrational fears driven by consistent political dishonesty and appeals to bigotry.

This tactic has been so successful that white men feel threatened in a country in which their dominance continues, as it has for centuries. Years of relentless fear-mongering and political dishonesty have significantly distorted the value system to which Obama attempted to appeal when he won the presidency.

The US example is particularly pertinent for South Africa. It is now common cause that the country has moved from being seen as a beacon of hope for Africa and the world to a state of institutional decline and grand corruption.

South Africa’s situation is exactly like that of the US. All that stands between our stable democracy and the precipice is a constitutional framework founded on an unequivocal commitment to the Bill of Rights, for which the ANC must take much of the credit.

The Office of the Public Protector – at least under its former head, Thuli Madonsela – became an archetype of what the founders of our democratic state had in mind when they pushed for its existence. Many people may not know this, but it was the ANC that formulated and presented the framework governing the Public Protector Act. The party affirmed the independence and powers of that office. Ironically, it is this very framework that those in the ANC, who have no interest in good governance, have called into question.

Today, a South Africa without the Public Protector is almost unimaginable. Put differently, the decline would have accelerated faster and the corruption that stalks the land would have gone too far down the road of institutional destruction without this office. Crucially, the Public Protector Act has helped to maintain a clear line on what citizens should not be prepared to accept.

So, it is clear that, at some point, the ANC used its electoral majority powerfully to drive a political agenda that would form the backbone of a strong, rights-based society. The fact that ANC leaders and members are the ones who rile against the very institutions that their predecessors worked so hard to build, indicates the extent of the party’s moral and intellectual degeneration.

Today’s world is filled with low expectations and a high tolerance for political dishonesty and criminality. Convicted thugs, who should hang their heads in shame, are emboldened to make brazen attempts to further distort society’s moral compass because they have no fear that the political system and constitutional institutions will be brought to bear upon them.

We have lost our sense of what it takes to achieve success, let alone do it properly, as a culture of cronyism and patronage is relentlessly pursued for the purpose of looting. Our collective capacity for outrage, spurring us on to take political action to push back against this corruption, has been diminished by years of conditioning.

It is more important to work out how to alter the status quo and set South Africa back on course to being the rights-based society we dreamt of, than wondering who takes over as ANC president. Ordinarily, this would be regarded as a critical intellectual task of every political party that convenes at a time like this.

Alas, all that matters is political power, almost for its own sake. That is a tragedy, with or without the ANC.

Zibi is an author and the former editor of Business Day


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