Can we really return to 'normal' after the elections?

2019-05-02 05:00
Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke preside over the Life Esidimeni hearings. (File)

The election noise has been deafening and, it cannot end soon enough. It will die down and life will have to return to normal. But what is normal? And do we really want to go back, asks Redi Tlhabi.

The stage is set for the sixth democratic election in South Africa. Politicians have, as expected, traversed the length and breadth of South Africa, leaving a trail of dust as their luxury cars drive on gravel roads, to see for themselves – yet again – how the forgotten poor live.

We have seen them hug babies, touch the wrinkled, sunburnt faces of the elderly and bow their heads in prayer at church services they normally do not attend. There have also been some inexplicable and unsettling images of "leaders" posing in front of dilapidated homes of the poor and opening fridges in people's homes to confirm the poverty and lack of fecundity that is the daily reality of many. It was a ghastly exercise of poverty voyeurism.

The election noise has been deafening and, it cannot end soon enough. It will die down and life will have to return to normal. But what is normal? What does normal look like?

To answer that, we need to go down memory lane and reflect on what life has been between the last election and now, and then decide whether we want that to be our normal.

It was in 2014, that former president Jacob Zuma was found by the Office of the Public Protector to have "benefited unduly" from so-called "security upgrades" to his Nkandla residence. For years thereafter, Zuma and his party, the ANC, fought the order to repay part of the money. In Parliament, the party set up a parallel structure to investigate Nkandla spending and unsurprisingly, these processes exonerated Zuma. During this Nkandla debacle, the office and powers of the Public Protector were questioned.

It was the new kids on the block, the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose chants of "pay back the money" shook Parliament and took the matter all the way to the Constitutional Court in 2016. The apex court not only affirmed the powers of the Public Protector but issued a stinging rebuke to the then president and Parliament. It was a seminal moment.

We had barely recovered from Nkandla, when Guptagate crashed into our collective face like a derailed train. We now know that the Gupta family built its business empire by looting state coffers through irregular multi-billion-rand contracts. They did so with the active collaboration of some senior ANC and government leaders. State-owned entities became the stage on which the main actors played and when the curtain came down, a third of South Africa's R4.9 trillion gross domestic product (GDP) was wiped out.

It is estimated that state capture cost R1.5 trillion over the second term of Zuma's administration. Those who resisted this seizure of our resources and nationhood, became casualties. Again, the party, drunk on power, went as far as denying this malfeasance and making enemies of those who reported it. Now that the Zondo commission is confirming what was long reported, the party wants to take credit for its creation. But facts are stubborn.

By the time Zuma vacated office, our economy had experienced a steep decline in economic activity. Stats SA reported that GDP had shrunk an annualised 2.2%, the biggest decline in nine years. This obviously spells doom for a country with an unemployment rate that is one of the highest in the world. At 27.5%, it is a national crisis that requires an urgent, coherent intervention, imagination and commitment. Greedy, clueless politicians are anathema to our prospects of breaking the back of unemployment.

Other than unemployment, we have seen our streets erupt with fiery protests over housing and other service delivery issues. Our cities continue to be divisive and framed according to apartheid spatial planning, with poor people and labourers living far from economic opportunities where there is no infrastructure and services. The housing backlog is another crisis facing our country.

In health, we have also had to contend with an uncaring state, whose ambitious plans for a national health insurance (NHI) are noble, but not doable under the current circumstances. The NHI will not wholly solve the long queues at state hospitals; the corruption, overworked health workers, medicine shortages and never-ending strikes. Some of these are governance issues and require a different type of leadership.

Life Esidimeni will go down as a blight on our humanity. We saw first hand how a government can decide to ignore its vulnerable citizens and other stakeholders, whilst it exercised toxic political power. In the end, close to 150 mentally ill patients died from a myriad of ills, neglect and starvation. This cannot be our normal.

Whilst all of this was unfolding, our law enforcement agencies were weakened in the struggle for control and power. Questionable appointments at the NPA, Hawks, SARS and SAPS ensured that wrongdoing, lawlessness and corruption go unpunished. But it would be unfair not to acknowledge the sweeping changes and inspiring appointments that President Cyril Ramaphosa has made. He has been true to his promise to clean these institutions up. But the damage is too great and more must still happen.

Now that we remember some of what informed our lives since the last election, will we let our elected officials take us back to these moments? Are we satisfied with these events being our "normal"? This election must set the tone for what we are not prepared as citizens, to tolerate from all office bearers, all parties. We cannot return to our normal. A new covenant is long overdue.

- Redi Tlhabi is an award-winning author, journalist and talkshow host.

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