Prince Mashele

Another post-colonial country

2009-04-17 15:30

Prince Mashele

In the maddening vortex of electioneering, it is perhaps the right time to welcome all of you to another normal post-colonial country, South Africa! But what makes us deserve this prestigious title of a special kind of normality?

In a normal post-colony, it is particularly the most naïve who have faith in politics. Without publicly declaring, informed citizens deflate their previously inflated confidence in politics as a mirror of society's collective ideals. It is generally those who are close to ruling parties who think that nothing is wrong with their country's politics.

Such people are usually baffled why there are people in society who see politics as a theatre of kleptocrats, even though the evidence of embezzlement of public funds is widely known. Ask Kenyans, Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Cameroonians and many others, they will laugh at you when you parade hollow exceptionalism.

But those who are not willing to deceive themselves can easily tell that the excitement and hope generated by the early days of independence in a normal post-colony is no more. Typically, ruling parties in such countries try their best to rekindle heroic memories of liberation struggles as a source of political legitimacy and continued support.

Where the state is yet to become fully brutish, intellectuals who dare critique ruling parties are immediately labelled and given names even their fathers and mother do not know. Or they would constantly be warned by genuine and mischievous sympathisers to tone down their audacity in order to avert danger or material marginalisation.

Normal, earthly beings

When entering a normal post-colony, you are likely to be shocked that, unlike a few years ago, politicians are no longer viewed as angels or messiahs. They are seen as normal, earthly beings who can easily be corrupted and who should not be judged on the basis of standards that are above those that apply to ordinary citizens. Instead of alleviating poverty, it becomes clearer that politicians are actually capable of deepening poverty.

If you insist on integrity as a cardinal principle of leadership, you would be dismissed as someone who is trying to introduce foreign values. In such normal post-colonial countries, politicians have no shame in parading all sorts of hypocrisies. They would stand before big rallies and tell supporters why it is important never to Europeanise Africa.

Yet the politician himself is wearing an Italian suit; or he has just returned from an unforgettable holiday in Paris; or he has a special collection in his house of the finest Scotch whisky. As the politician continues to prattle on about why Africans should remain authentically African, a huge convoy of threatening German cars awaits to take him to his next rally where he will deliver the same revolutionary message.

Indeed, nothing that characterises a post-colony is untypical of ancient societies elsewhere. In his magisterial book, Power, acclaimed philosopher Bertrand Russell takes our memories to early centuries, long before the normal post-colony even became a colony:

    Greek history is peculiar in the fact that ... the influence of tradition was extraordinarily weak ... there was almost no political morality ... No Spartan could resist a bribe. Throughout Greece, it was useless to object to a politician on the ground that he took bribes from the King of Persia, because his opponents also did so if they became sufficiently powerful to be worth buying.

Dangerous tendencies

Yes, post-colonial countries in many ways mirror the backwardness of ancient societies. Who among us can dispute that bribery and corruption have become the sinews of South Africa's body politic today? Even as party manifestoes promise to fight corruption, few in our society attach sincerity to those who make the commitments.

Such dangerous tendencies as tribalism and ethnicity become useful explanatory tools in understanding the politics of normal post-colonial societies. From time to time, a so-called high-profile member of political party A would resign and join party B citing tribalism among the principal reasons behind his resignation. In his magnum opus, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon actually did warn us:

    We no longer see the rise of a bourgeois dictatorship, but a tribal dictatorship. The Ministers, the members of the cabinet, the ambassadors and local commissioners are chosen from the same ethnological group as the leader, sometimes directly from his family.

To confirm that you are indeed in a normal post-colony, you only need to look at the omnipotence and omnipresence of ruling parties in relation to society. A successful businessman is not one who works hard, but the one who gets deals through connections and blessings from the ruling party. University appointments are also not delinked from party headquarters. Intellectuals would be seen making an effort to please those who have power, even if it means completely destroying their reputation and integrity.

At a community level, a post-colonial state is more visible through the police when there is unrest. When there are potholes on the road, you would suspect that you are living in a government-less society; nobody fixes anything!

When you go to a government office for service, you will stand for long hours in snaky queues while an official is noisily sipping coffee or irritatingly sharing a joke with a buddy over the phone. If you dare suggest ethics and professionalism, you will, again, be dismissed as the corrupter of African authenticity.

Absence of inspirational leadership

In a normal post-colony, hardworking and dedicated civil servants are frustrated because they have come to accept that there is little they can do to change the politically polluted culture that prevails.

In the absence of inspirational leadership from politicians, these public servants only go to work because they need those salaries to maintain their families. The guys who really have a good time are party cadres. As Frantz Fanon again reminds us:

    [T]he fact of being a party militant means that you take the short cut to gain private ends, to hold a post in the government, step up the ladder, get promotion and make a career for yourself.

In a normal post-colony, elections are nothing more than a means to legitimise patronage and corruption. Beneficiaries of patronage are the most energetic in political campaigns and the most generous in contributing money for the success of their preferred political parties.

They ask themselves "If my party does not win, how am I going to pay for my German car, my Scotch whisky and my for European-style town house or mansion?"

Few politicians genuinely think of society. Anyone who thinks this does not apply to South Africa should go and read party manifestos and come back to inform us which party manifesto addresses the following question: what will South Africa look like in twenty, thirty, fifty or hundred years? Most of our politicians chiefly interested in the next five years; to get rich as soon as they can, and sink society deeper and deeper into destitution!

Time for a welcome

In a normal post-colony, to be poor is to be cursed! In a normal post-colony, the public dwindles and the private thrives. In a normal post-colony, merit is throttled and imbecility greatly rewarded. In a normal post-colony, revolutionary songs are more popular than sound ideas. In a normal post-colony, no politician will say "Let's declare war against ignorance and illiteracy."

In a normal post-colony, to have state power is to have an instrument through which you can deal with real and imagined political enemies. In a normal post-colony, critical areas of the economy such as agriculture and manufacturing only receive rhetorical support.

So, as you sharpen your pencil to go and make a cross on April 22, it is perhaps the right time to welcome all of you to a normal post-colonial country, South Africa!

  • Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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