Zama Ndlovu | Ramaphosa is right: It's not in his hands, it's in ours

Zama Ndlovu (Supplied)
Zama Ndlovu (Supplied)
  • Widespread frustration with government in general and the president, in particular, might be misdirected, says Zama Ndlovu. 
  • We had two decades of a growing spiral that warned us that our problems were institutional and could not be fixed by one man holding a tenuous majority in his party. 
  • The good news is that there is a difference between a ruling party and the broader institution of democracy. 

Everyone is incensed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, it seems. Opinionistas are disappointed, Twitter is angry, and even the once-hopeful analysts are exasperated. While it's easy to lay all the blame at the feet of one man, the very idea of a saviour is the antithesis to the idea of democracy, which is premised on achieving long-term collective interests through accountability to the public. Democracies are not meant to be institutions of heroism or worse, egoism. We are not meant to be saved.

This collective annoyance with the president is another brick laid in the building expectations that are not democratic in nature. This reaction is perhaps a relic of the years of deifying the late former President Nelson Mandela. Thus, even the most cynical among us secretly yearns for a second coming in the form of the current president. Or maybe we need to look elsewhere to understand the deterioration of our political discourse.

In 1985, Neil Postman wrote an incisive book - Amusing Ourselves to Death - in which he argued that television had created a culture in which modes of public discourse such as education, news, politics and religion had been reduced to entertainment. In his introduction, Postman compares George Orwell's 1984 to Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.

He argues:

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."

In the rest of the book, Postman then demonstrates how the evolution of media (oral, written, photographic, visual, and now social) has systematically broken down the reverence for rational discourse, prizing the entertainers over context.

Huxley's nightmare

We are living in Huxley’s nightmare. Collectively, we have engaged with our country superficially, and no more is this true than on the degeneration of our country at the hands of the corrupt. The "lost decade" that the president often refers to was before 2008. An inquiry into post-democracy state corruption could easily begin a decade earlier, during the multi-billion dollar 1998 Arms Deal. Despite numerous investigations, legal challenges and a commission, there was no satisfactory resolution.

Instead, what followed was a decade of corruption scandals featuring the likes of Tony Yengeni, Schabir Shaik, and Jackie Selebi, to name but a few. Even former President Thabo Mbeki was named in the FIFA corruption scandal, with US officials claiming that the former president was instrumental in paying a bribe to secure SA's hosting rights.

By the time we entered the Zuma Years, we were entrenched in a culture of perpetual shock. To keep us entertained, scandals had to be bigger and gorier to keep our attention. The once-shocking R246-million upgrades at former President Jacob Zuma's private residence are nothing compared to the wholesale looting we see today. This avalanche of deterioration is largely enabled by the way we consume, digest and act on the information we receive daily about the state of our nation. All serious discourse in South Africa has turned into entertainment. Long-live the soundbite!

Hyper-focused on today

When we became hyper-focused on today, we failed to think about the consequences for tomorrow, the next year, the next decade, for the next generation. Our inability to deal with the Coronavirus crisis is just one example of our failure to hold space for rational public discourse; of how we cannot consider the longer-term impact of not making necessary short-term sacrifices. This and much more is testament to a national decline.  

So back to the president. Did he overpromise? Of course he did, he wouldn't be a politician if he hadn't. But we had two decades of a growing spiral that warned us that our problems were institutional and could not be fixed by one man holding a tenuous majority in his party.

The good news is that the ANC is not the same as democracy. Although battered and bruised, our most important institutions are currently still strong enough to support political reforms. In June of this year, the Constitutional Court made a momentous ruling by declaring that the Electoral Act of 1998 was unconstitutional insofar as it prevents individuals from contesting for provincial and national elections. As political analyst Dr Sthembile Mbete pointed out, the ruling does not change SA's system of democratic governance in that the president will still be elected by Parliament; however, it opens the door for reforms that could support more inclusivity and accountability.

To not have another system which results in the same political party members being elected into Parliament because of party resources and voter apathy, it is us the public who must break away from the entertainment and engage more deeply with public discourse.

Huxley and Postman's reality may be true now, but it doesn't have to remain true forever. We have all the tools we need to make far-reaching reforms to our systems of governance and accountability. But first, we must reclaim our attention away from this entertaining political decay. It may not be what he hopes for, but the president is right: it's not in his hands, it's in ours.

Zama Ndlovu is a former columnist who has come out of retirement. Views expressed are her own. 

* From next week, this column will be published as part of News24's new subscription service at R75 per month. You will be able to subscribe from Saturday (8 August). 

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