Democracy, Culture and Intelligence: South Africa’s elusive symbiosis

2014-04-04 20:05

It is tempting but simplistic in the aftermath of the Nkandla Report, to revile Zuma as childishly unaccountable. And it is superfluous to point out that he is demeaning of democratic institutions and insults the intelligence of South Africans - for his statement that it was “not his fault” this past weekend whilst on the campaign trail was palpably false. It can with obvious justification be said that to refute blame as he has and ignore the Public Prosecutors ultimatum for an appropriate response with the fob off of a report to parliament in his own time and the words “he is concerned about the allegations of maladministration and impropriety around procurement in the Nkandla project, in particular the allegations of cost inflation” (Maharaj, Politicsweb 03/04/2014) is disingenuous.

He insults the nation’s citizenry and is lying with presumed impunity.

In doing what he has done, he strives to place himself above the law, with accountability for his deeds due to be expunged by the sacrifice of those who did his bidding. It is already clear that senior ministers and department heads will be rolling on his behalf - but does Zuma care?

Surely not. There must be more sycophants where they come from.

But let’s try to look at the Nkandla issue more broadly. And although it runs somewhat against the grain to ask it, it does beg one simple question - who can really blame him?

Because there lies the key to the abyss.

And the answer is not difficult to find.

It lies in the public’s indulgence of Zuma’s bellicose nature, his disregard for democratic institutions and his lack of ethics. He justifies himself by playing the “culture card”.

He is also an extreme example of the “Peter Principle” – a phenomenon that gets incompetent people fired or unceremoniously dumped out of corporate life for a failure to perform after having been promoted beyond their capabilities or for inappropriate behaviour – but which Zuma’s cultural environment shields him from.


His incompetence and amorality are sanctioned and justified by invoking values alien to an aspiring democracy. For example, his polygamy, womanizing, many affairs and even allegations of rape (all sanctioned according to mainstream western values), are put down to his “culture” - and thereby legitimized. His business dealings with the likes of the Schaiks and the Guptas are a symbiosis of back-scratching and trading favours for money – typical “big man” behaviour devoid of accountability and, once again, culturally driven.

To make things still worse, the ANCs default setting is to close ranks around its big men and leaders – coating them in teflon. The “struggle” liturgy safeguards their skin.

There is another factor too.

One can understand Zuma’s attitude to the Nkandla issue simply because of what went before it - the abortive Arms Deal enquiry. Through political intrigues and manipulating legal principles, he went unpunished and – even worse – was reinforced by popular support during the anti-Mbeki era – and then became president! Thus, Zuma committed the unspeakable (Arms Deal theft) and found not only backers and acolytes but popular support, which would have led him to conclude that he can do the same again.

So instead of Arms Deal revelations teaching us to fear the serpents of patronage and corruption, it enabled Zuma’s undermining of the very democratic institutions that gave him legitimacy at the outset. It helped to build a ring of steel around him; the Zulufication of the ANC, the conflation of KZN support for him at Mangaung, his patronage of selected sponsors and businessmen speak to a corrupt and labyrinthine power base – with one of the collateral symptoms being Nkandla.

Society has thus failed to take responsibility for its leadership.

It is therefore illogical and inappropriate to blame one Machiavellian, avaricious and street wise man, regardless of his sleaze index. Given that he is accountable to an indulgent and incompetent citizenry who voted him in and once flocked to his support, why should he not get away with what he can? His response was pavlovian.

And we deserve him

The Ultimate Cause?

Zuma’s leadership has remained free of sanction because ours is a naïve and essentially ignorant populace lacking the competence to employ the tools of a quality democracy. Democratic institutions - the concepts of individual rights, equal opportunity, the independence of the judiciary, censure for deviant behaviour or non-performance, and many other facets - are beyond the capacity of our government to use wisely, so the mechanisms to censure wrong-doing, penalize and lock Zuma up for his felonies rather than promote him, simply go unused. South Africans at large are to blame - but this was to be expected.

Quality of democracy – as measured by indices of personal freedom and security; individual sovereignty; economic well being; freedom of choice, and other important benchmarks - has been a subject of international study. It has been found in a number of studies to be a function of the appropriate cultural predisposition and cognitive ability - both of which many South Africans can lay scant claim to.

According to the political scientist Francis Fukujama for example, the culture of societies can be diagnosed along two continuums – Rational versus A-Rational and Spontaneously versus Hierarchically generated norms, each of which can be measured using various criteria.

The two can be depicted on intersecting axes, as follows:

Fukujama observes that societies high on the rationality and spontaneity index generate higher levels of social capital and cultivate more successful democracies and economies. At its simplest he conceives of a four quadrant matrix, each characterized differently, with democratically immature societies starting in quadrant 1 (bottom right) and moving in a clockwise direction as they develop up to quadrant 4.

Quadrant 1 would, for example include historical and folk traditions based on biologically grounded norms; quadrant 2 includes revealed religion and ideologies such as communism and “the Struggle”; quadrant 3 encompasses formal laws, constitutionalism and social engineering; and quadrant 4 - the market, common law, free expression and participative government.

Intuitively, it is clear that good democracy and successful economies would populate the 4th quadrant and that Fukujama’s conclusions would be valid.

Unfortunately though, the South African political persona is split between quadrants 2 and 3 on the one hand - and quadrant 4 on the other with numerical superiority lying with those populating the lower quadrants. This diminishes both the quality of democracy for all and the nation’s prospects for political survival in an increasingly connected world.

That explains how leaders unsuited to the democratic paradigm come to be appointed. It also explains how Zuma could have built Nkandla and why he will in all probability get away with what he has done – with still more scandals to come.

There will also no doubt be further examples of the abuse of democratic institutions and an accelerating erosion of governing principles for as long as there is a mismatch between culture, cognitive capacity and political power - and for as long as the governing party ensures that genuine democracy remains subservient to its acquisitive and coercive version of it.

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