Ignorance will kill the power of 'We, the people…'

Black First Land First (BLF) members led by Andile Mngxitama and Zanele Lwaini protest in Centurion. (Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images)
Black First Land First (BLF) members led by Andile Mngxitama and Zanele Lwaini protest in Centurion. (Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images)

Many people who can genuinely represent all South Africans lack the guts to enter politics. They have chosen to sit back and hope that somehow the scoundrels entering politics will fix things up, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

As we mark a quarter of a century since the end of apartheid and the dawn of constitutional democracy, we have to appraise ourselves honestly as a people. What have we done to make the democratic system, so pregnant with possibilities at inception, work?

When such questions arise, the fingers are invariably and immediately pointed at the government. The government failed to do this. The government failed to do that. I haven't received this or that from the government. It's always the government, the government, the government... It's as if democracy was meant for us to elect the government and thereafter, we would fold our arms, waiting for this government to do things on our behalf. Opportunistic politicians have seized the moment, presenting themselves as delivery magicians. It is little wonder then that many people feel cheated by the failure to deliver services.

READ: Mpumelelo Mkhabela - How government can get its credibility back

But the truth is that the constitutional democratic project was never exclusively about the government delivering to the people. At the centre of everything about constitutional democracy are the people themselves. It should be the people who make sure that democracy works through political parties and a competent state.

Political parties are mere vehicles. That is why political parties coin slogans about "power to the people". No political party has a slogan that says "power to the political party" or "power to the government". The Constitution's preamble opens with the poignant phrase, "We, the people of South Africa…". It does not start with "We, the political parties of South Africa" or "We, the government of South Africa".

It is the people in whose interests the Constitution was adopted and whose interests the government is elected serve. But this powerful affirmation "We, the people…" has been rendered weak by two political developments.

Government must do everything

The first is the expectation that the government will do everything for the people even as the people themselves complain in the corners instead of using the available mechanisms to take ownership of the government in a constitutionally prescribed orderly fashion.

No government exists for its own sake. It exists through the people. But the people have to conduct their affairs in a civil manner that recognises the legitimacy of an elected government. Which brings me to the second troubling development: the constitutionally enshrined methods to hold the government to account are being increasingly ignored. In their place are illegal methods such as destruction of infrastructure that belongs to "We, the people".

Organisations whose only mission is to "shut down" something are mushrooming. Typically, the targets for shutdowns are public transport, public roads, public schools. In the case of Alexandra, the entire township is target of shutdown and there is a publicly acceptable organisation formed and named for this purpose! The shutdown movements are an acute representation of the kind of lawlessness that threatens the very foundation of the constitutional order that places "We, the people…" at the centre.

The expectation that government will do everything while we watch and fail to hold it to account in a responsible manner has resulted in officials burdening the state with too much responsibility. The rise of the responsibilities of the state has led to increased inefficiency, corruption and abuse of power. As a result, the state faces crises including lack of ideas on how to improve its operations.

A crisis of ideas

In their book, The Fourth Revolution, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge might well have been referring to South Africa when they observed, "it is the animating ideas that determine the workings of the state in much the same way that operating systems determine the workings of computers. The crisis of the state is more than an organizational crisis. It is a crisis of ideas."

Absent noble ideas, all politicians do is think of new ideas to steal efficiently. Post-facto complaining about such conduct, rather than preventive measures, is the way we seem to conduct our politics. We, the people ourselves seem to have run out of ideas to make our democratic system work in our collective interests.

The problems highlighted above arise from one major crisis: nation-wide ignorance about the functioning of the democratic system. Voter apathy among young people, for example, is a function of ignorance rather than despondency. A person who is despondent about the current political conditions should vote to change it as a way to regain hope. But a person who is ignorant of the power they hold to improve their circumstances will not – until the urge to act illegally and probably violently take root.

It's time we considered a balanced evaluation of our performance as a democracy that includes the performance of the people in making democracy work for them.

ALSO READ: Mpumelelo Mkhabela - Those with 'political insurance' threaten meaningful reform

We have claimed fundamental human rights, well policed by our excellent judiciary, but not the full responsibility to use the rights to our benefit. We have not made full use of the institutions designed to ensure that we can feel that we are governing, that we are in charge. We have allowed institutions to be threatened and weakened because we don't value them.

We have supported dodgy characters in setting up political parties or hijacking existing ones. We have stood and watched while the once selfless among our politicians have transformed into the direct opposite of what they were during the struggle against apartheid.

Many people who can genuinely represent all South Africans lack the guts to enter politics. They have chosen to sit back and hope against hope that somehow the scoundrels entering politics at increasing rates to clothe themselves with immunity from poverty and prosecution will fix things up.

Many of these problems emanate from the ignorance of the workings of the constitutional dispensation we are in. It's about time we introduced civic education in our schools to teach young people about the Constitution and the huge responsibility it places on all of us to make it work.

Failing which, the next 25 years will see a further decline in the quality of our constitutional democracy. Ignorance will kill the power of "We, the people…"

The ultimate consequence is that we will become, if we haven't already, strangers to the democratic constitutional system we supposedly control. By failing to make it work as it should, we have created an opportunity for some in our society to begin to argue for the undoing of the key foundations of the constitutional democratic order.

Let's make our democracy work. Happy 25th anniversary to We, the people of South Africa!

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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