Charles Lee Mathews

Make the irresponsible accountable

South Africans are experiencing an epidemic of reckless behaviour where the thoughtless, careless and irresponsible are getting away with too much.

The South African news climate was always heavy with stories of irresponsible leadership, but lately it feels like we’re in flood.

Between the presidential administration apparently lying about Schabir Shaik’s pardon; allegations of nepotism levelled against Alan Knott-Craig (hardly a surprise to anyone in the ICT industry); the endless soap opera at the SABC; the madness of Maroga’s greed following his failure to effectively run our most important state enterprise; the ongoing Caster Semenya cock-up; and Malema’s “quick step — open mouth — change feet” dance, South Africa’s suffering a profound accountability crisis.

As our political and business role models flounder in the responsibility stakes, the question begs to be asked — how can South Africans be expected to behave accountably and maturely if our leaders behave like toddlers? With their hands caught in the cookie jar, as boards disintegrate around them, or as they cause disruption and dysfunction to state-owned enterprises, these leaders throw their hands up in the air, confess “my bad”, and without pause, carry on.

Forgive and forget?
It is as if the mere confession that they are useless is enough. That by stating they have completely and utterly cocked up gets them off the hook. And the disclosure is uttered with the expectation that South Africans should applaud, pat the miscreants on the back and say: “Oh hallelujah! You completely diminished the value of that key state enterprise, but you’ve been so brutally honest about your failure. Kudos for that. Of course we forgive you.”

Speaking to my friend, the retired London psychiatrist-cum-writer, Alasdair Cameron, I’m reminded that the root of the problem is one of collectivism. The ANC is prone to collectivist thinking, an anathema to taking responsibility on an individual level. Collectivism is just another word for the individual refusal to take blame or responsibility. In short, collectivism is nothing more than group non-responsibility and a shelter where fat, lazy bureaucrats go to nod off while collecting huge salaries, benefits and bribes.

This cavalier behaviour is reinforced by the current confessional trend where it’s cool to screw up, as long as you face the media and admit your shortcomings before bumbling on. If that isn’t bad enough, this behaviour is reinforced by notions of party loyalty and allegiance. In this delusion, whistle-blowers and those who hold the irresponsible to account are demonised as ANC party traitors. Self-interest is subjugated to group interest, and the group again becomes a place to hide away from responsibility.

What our country seriously needs is a crash course in accountability, and globally there’s no one better placed to impart profound lessons on responsibility than Ayn Rand’s former lover and intellectual heir, Nathaniel Branden.

A strong champion for the philosophy of objectivism, Branden is a world authority in the field of self-esteem, and has written over 20 books, including best-sellers like The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem; The Virtue of Selfishness (with Ayn Rand); Taking Responsibility; Self-Esteem at Work; and My Years with Ayn Rand.

The bad news is that as South Africans, we can’t just foist responsibility on to our leaders. Like any other maturation of the psyche, an attitude of self-responsibility comes from within. It is a self-elective. It happens only when a human being is ready to become self-aware and to change their thinking, consciousness and behaviour. Almost impossible in a political system that encourages emotional and intellectual blindness, and where irresponsibility is continually rewarded.

Suffer the consequences
The only solution is to be found in individualism and a movement that will begin to hold people accountable for their actions, ensuring a consequence to irresponsibility. Branden speaks to this in terms of cause and effect: “In nature, if we behave irresponsibly we suffer the consequences not because nature is ‘punishing’ us, but because of simple cause and effect. If we do not plant food, we do not reap a harvest. If we are careless about fire, we destroy our property. If we build a raft without securing the logs properly, the raft comes apart in the water and we may lose our belongings or drown. None of this happens because reality is angry with us. If reality could speak, it might say, ‘It’s nothing personal.'” He adds that people who wish to encourage self-responsibility must teach consequences.

It is the lack of consequence that fuels irresponsible behaviour. A case in point is the news that 4 000 new pistols have been ordered by the SA Police Service (SAPS), which the DA reports are being purchased to “mostly to replace lost and stolen firearms”. The DA is rightly petitioning this irresponsible act, saying the SAPS is fuelling an arms trade. Buying more firearms to replace those recklessly lost by police doesn’t encourage taking accountability, it just creates a new supply of weapons that once again can be lost or stolen. More importantly, what the SAPS is not telling us is how policemen who lose, or enable their firearms to be stolen, are being held to account for this reckless action.

Says Branden: “Individualism and self-responsibility are the necessary foundation for true community. If we live in a culture that upholds the principle that we are responsible for our actions and the fulfilment of our desires, and if coercion is not an option in the furtherance of our aims, then we have the best possible context for the triumph of community, benevolence, and mutual esteem.”

In a country where blood was sacrificed for liberation, the fruits of freedom are being squandered by the “corruption” of collectivism. It is only when we stop voting for race, loyalty, tribe or collectives (and against responsibility and individualism) that things will change. Until we create processes and technologies to drive accountability, things will stay the same or even deteriorate. Until we become responsible enough to demand better, we will get what we deserve — lazy, irresponsible apologists who diminish the value of this beautiful country.

This oped was originally written for ITWeb.

  • Hugh Robinson

    Do we not have a leader that fits the cut of the cloth so described above? Is it not the fault of all for not standing up for what is right in place ion place of the all forgiving all to blame?

    Is it not the fault of those who are appologists and so polically correct that they do not dare stand to be counted?

    In this case the country got what it Elected. Not what the country needed but in the hope that they would get more freebies..

  • nguni

    Very true, apart from the admissions of guilt or failure. I have never heard a politician in this country admitting he/she did anything wrong. On the contrary, people like Malema or Hlope are insulted when their mistakes or corruption are pointed out to them. Neither of those characters need a lesson in self-esteem by the way, they have the opposite problem which is megalomania and unlimited entitlement.
    Which confessions did you mean?

  • Amanda

    Well said, Mandy.

    “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

    Regrettably, many in the ANC forget or just simply ignore these wise words…

  • brigs

    Perhaps one might ask, do we not have the leaders ‘We’ voted for. Is the problem rather- should the people of south africa pick better leaders than those we hve chosen. Sure our so called leaders behave like toddlers, but non the less we voted them in, and as such sould wynge less about thier indiscressions. these are after all the people the majority of south africans wanted to lead us!

  • Bibliophile

    You couldn’t be more right Mandy!

    Heidi Holland’s ‘Dinner with Mugabe’ laid bare the facts of low self-esteem and lack of personal accountability being endemic to leaders in South Africa and Zimbabwe. If only they would comprehend the writings of Malcolm X and Steve Biko on Black Consciousness…

    All of us humans, and I mean completely beyond the artificial constructs of race and colour, ought to spend the span of our lives trying to eveolve to levels of self consciousness, and hopefully, self-actualization.

    When I looked at the headlines in the weekend papers about Siphiwe Nyanda, Cheryl Cwele, and particularly “Zuma fathers baby with Irvin Khoza’s daughter” I felt sick, then terribly angry, and then despondent, and finally asked myself, how long will it be before Zuma and his cronies completely destroy the fabric of our nascent society? If one delves deeper into the papers you find that the rot is nearly everywhere.

    It is still shocking to me how a man who was never aquitted of serious government corruption, who will always have questions over his head about his predatory sexual behaviour, and is the epitome of the anti-intellectual nepotist, and a dangerous nationalist (Umshimi Wam), could become president of a country that had so much potential.

    I am not sure where my next dose of optimism about my home, South Africa, is going to come from. I just quietly hope that, like a complexed adolescent, this young society will mature and become great.

  • T Watkins

    Great Article Mandy! Never thought I would see the name Ayn Rand mentioned positively in an M&G blog.

    There is no advantage in blaming the black majority for voting for the ANC, any more than blaming the restricted Afrikaner majority for voting for a watered down form of Nazism for 40 years.

    In the immortal words of Idi Amin (from “The Last King of Scotland”), its not enough that you were right, you failed to CONVINCE me! Those of us who are wise enough to see the tragedies unfolding in South Africa must do more than comment – we must CONVINCE the majority of their folly.

    One way of doing this would be to maintain a public and accessible database of every single government, parastatal, NGO, police, municipality cock up, and to refer to this database constantly when people like Maroga scurry for cover. This would be similar to the very successful in the private sector. With the figures at our fingertips, then perhaps we could refute the endless denials, and help CONVINCE the electorate of their mistaken loyalty to failed politicians and failing political parties.

  • Bill Rogers

    Well said, Mandy. Are there any ANC supporters who read this who can give a plausible explanation for their choice to continue voting for the ANC?

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    Leaders do not ‘make’ the nation (though they would have us believe they do)
    Rather, the quality of the populace is reflected in its leaders.

    “Collectivism is just another word for the individual refusal to take blame or responsibility.”

    Ah, the Great Truth is revealed… if responsibility is accepted individually and collectivism and individualism are mutually exclusive opposites…bah, then we have a problem.

    “it just creates a new supply of weapons that once again can be ‘lost’ or ‘stolen’.”

    No, it just creates a ‘black market’ which is always what happens when governments intrude on peoples lives where they have no business and try to prohibit and obstruct things.

    But people will continue to believe passionately in the efficacy of things such as collectivism, prohibition and state control no matter what history teaches, and will render up leaders no better than their lowest common denominator.

  • Peter Joffe

    The labour laws in South Africa are so biased towards ‘the worker’ that ‘the worker’ has not need to do any work as he/she cannot be fired. So now we have the situation where the ‘bad eggs’ can only be put on paid leave or promoted to another department for them to mess up. Zuma says that all the non performers will be disposed of?? How, he cannot fire them and he has no one to replace them with anyway? Its golden hand shakes or long long leave as we have seen with so many useless people to date. The right people for the job cannot be employed because they are not ANC members and because the wrong people are already in the jobs and are there for life, or promotion.
    If you cannot fire anyone the only alternative is as described above or keep hiring more people until you have 20 people messing up, what one person messed up before. From a business point of view, few employers want to hire people that they cannot fire even if theft or corruption are the main reason.

  • Shelagh

    This is the best piece of writing I’ve read on Thought Leader for yonks. Thank you, Mandy. Now wouldn’t it be lovely if it was read by those who need to read it?

  • Robin Grant

    The real issue in South African politics is that we have no credible (in the eyes of the masses) opposition to the ANC.
    We have no second voice of reason to which the masses will listen. This second voice in a democracy is an important moral compass, that helps to at least set some kind of standards and level of accountability.
    (Internal voting within the ANC does not count as part of the national democratic process ad much as they would like to believe it does – ).
    Without this second powerful party, democracy in South Africa is doomed.

  • Mike

    I have no doubt that this topic will render Dave Harris silent.

  • Mike

    On second thoughts, I am sure that we will be subjected to the usual Dave Harris rant about the “racist DA”.

  • Siobhan

    I agree with your central point. Collectivism does relieve individuals of a sense of personal responsibility and replaces it with collective impunity. The ‘collective’ is a hive, like ‘the Borg’ of Star Trek fame! The danger of collectivism was made all too clear by China’s Gang of Four and their ‘cultural revolution’ which cost untold millions their lives, their freedom, their sanity.

    The obvious problem with the collective is the absence of group intelligence. The totalitarian collective operates at the level of the least capable. Hence, Julius rises to the top of the ANCYL collective.

    “Individualism” is an amoral insistence on one’s right to do as she or he pleases, without consequences.

    “Individuality” is uniqueness that exists in the context of a pluralist society.

    “Individual (personal) Responsibility” is the admission that we are responsible for the consequences of our choices and behaviours.

    An individualist places no blame on him or herself when things wrong. Ironically, a collective–especially the leadership–may be dominated by ‘individualists’ who believe they are not obligated to obey the laws of their society or even their party!

    A responsible individual accepts blame for his/her decisions and actions and does not try to ‘duck the consequences’.

    When a group votes in favour of a course of action, responsibility is distributed equally amongst the members of the group and they are held “collectively” accountable. That is what is lacking in the ANC: equal responsibility and accountability amongst the “collective leadership’ and individual members.

  • Jeff

    Thank you Mandy de Waal.
    This is one of the best articles I have seen written on TL. I volunteer at a school where the pupils are from the townships around Cape Town.
    I spend a lot of time trying to get them to realise that they are responsible for what happens in their lives. That they have been given an opportunity to get educated, but that the responsiblity to use that opportunity is THEIR responsiblity. That they have to change their behaviour so that the consequences are good, not bad.
    It’s a battle, but I see that I am getting through to more and more of them.
    Article like this make me realise that I must be on the right track.
    Oh! I almost forgot. Please change the photograph.

  • Dave Harris

    Gosh Mandy, I wonder if its just another bad hair day 😉 Constrained by word limit, I’ll simply address the fallacy of your underlying philosophy that drives so much of your confused ramblings.

    The fact the ANC is the party of freedom, carries infinitely more weight than all the noble talk emanating from the previously advantaged these days – evidenced by most of the preceding comments where your sheeple nod their heads in agreement but reserve the gnashing of teeth for the ANC. Fortunately, the masses cannot be fooled all the time.

    Peddling Ayn Rand’s neocon views on property rights is simply a precursor for the previously advantaged to find justification in hanging onto their ill-gotten gains acquired during the apartheid regime. Remember the wealth acquired from centuries of white-AA and brutality is still largely held in the hands of the previously advantaged. Similarly, this “individual effort” and “pulling oneself by ones own bootstraps” are all delusions of neocons to justify their anti-AA rhetoric. The stage of evolution of a civilization is how it treats the weaker and disadvantaged members of its society, especially those who have been oppressed and brutalized for centuries because of their skin color.

    Furthermore, Rand’s form of laisses-faire capitalism leads to the “greed is good” mindset of bankers and investors, just look where that has gotten the US economy! Strangely, I suppose many of the corrupt politicians in our government will concur with you.

  • Dave Harris

    Using Ayn Rand inhumane philosophies is merely a underhanded attempt at justifying greed in the same way apartheid used the false belief of “racial superiority” to justify greed and brutality right here in SA. Unfortunately, these short sighted “philosophies” ultimately lead to the kind of economic destruction and social upheaval we are witnessing today – the worst worldwide recession in living memory!

    When you speak of ” lazy, irresponsible apologists who diminish the value of this beautiful country.” , you bring to mind the apartheid apologists who, due to a sudden attack of amnesia, want us to believe that the economic and educational racial disparity we see in this country is due to “Individualism and self-responsibility”. If this was true then pigs would fly.

  • Pete

    Great post, Mandy. The sad thing is that we take so much of this for granted. Shrug our shoulders and say there’s not much we can do.

  • Jeff

    Hey, Dave,
    I just saw a pig flying past.