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South Africa has never had a good government

South Africa has never had a good government, in any of its four phases of history. Romantic ideas about the first of these phases, life prior to the arrival or outside the influence of émigrés from Europe, are skewed. There had been no Garden of Eden or natural state of harmony in Southern Africa that can somehow now be returned. The subsequent colonial era was no high bloom of development and internationalisation: the British concentration camps from 1900 onwards provide the harshest example of this. These camps set the scene for the most condemned of the brutalities of the previous century. The cruelties, pain and humiliations of the apartheid half-century from 1948 onwards are in our living memory. The harm done during the post-apartheid quarter of a century since 1994: the devastation caused by HIV denialism, corruption during the presidency of Jacob Zuma and the incessant crime. And now, the Covid-19 failures of government. 

Every era has a massacre

Each of these eras had its massacres — just one example committed by each ruling elite are: the Difaqane/Mfecane (1820s), the Rand Rebellion (1922), Sharpeville (1960) and Marikana (2012). Each of these massacres shows the heartlessness that had accompanied rule in South Africa. Collectively, all of us have been victims of government, either directly or by being foundationally let down; either through suffering gross outrages on a communal scale or through personal maltreatment. We have been failed by successive governments, individually, as groups and as a whole. South Africa has never had a good government.

In each of these phases the general populace experienced the negative effects of these vices of state, but has never had the wherewithal to bring about change. In each of these instances, fundamentally altering the course of politics in South Africa has not come about through the dissatisfactions of the people; to those, it seems, our rulers remain always unresponsive. Rather, by extraordinary quirks of history, world-changing events have been part of the key impulses for changing the political paradigm in Southern Africa. European colonialist expansion brought to an unanticipated end versions of tribal rule in the region. World War II set the stage for the unexpected 1948 change of government in South Africa. The end of the Cold War, startlingly illustrated by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, brought down the last bastion of the apartheid regime, its anti-communist stance. 1994 ensued. In each case a host of factors worked to constitute anew, the political dynamics in South Africa. As a vital facilitative circumstance, though, a major reorganisation of the world brought about a changed South Africa. 

And now, causing upheaval on a fully global scale, we have “the virus”.  

The virus crisis

It has been amply pointed out how Covid-19 has brought to the fore the most negative of the impulses of South Africa’s current ruling party. Though the motives may be lofty, the practices are the opposite. Ignoring basic human rights, downplaying murder by the state security apparatus, either gross errors in presentation of fact or lies along with monopolising the spread of information, playing party politics where livelihoods are at risk, the inability to rid us of leaders who have lost moral authority show us a group nobody would want in charge to deal with the virus crisis. This is all-round bad leadership.  We deserve better. 

Commentators have indicated the Stalinist impulses of senior figures in leadership positions as they deal with South African society during this virus crisis. Analysts have shown the lunacy of economic policies that do not take seriously the harsh choices we have to make —  by keeping to an even harsher ideology. For these abuses of power, we and future generations will pay dearly. 

In the same way as it has been argued that South Africa had seen in apartheid the last vestiges of colonialist rule, we have seen in post-apartheid South Africa the last vestiges of communist rule. Let us have no illusions: as bad as apartheid was, as bad as Nazism had been, communism has been worse. Its international legacy includes 80-million deaths in the previous century. We do not in South Africa accept apologists for apartheid or Nazism: we bury their ideologies in the garbage category of history. Why do we not do the same with the last vestiges of communism? South Africa deserves better than what we are offered now. It is time to call this government to an end. And “the virus” has served us with the vital global circumstance to bring about a fully new political paradigm.

It is time to rid South Africa of yet another bad government. And Covid-19 has created an international platform to do so.  

The branding of communist policies, so deeply infecting the current government, as “progressive” is sleight-of-hand deceit. There is nothing “progressive” to infantile economics. Nor to pretending to serve justice to the poor, while bullying everyone into impoverished servanthood. That is not progress. Have we not had enough of such loathing by rulership?

In a good South Africa, if anyone as much as whispers “nationalisation”, “cadre deployment” or any such code words for national destruction, we should laugh them off their political horse. We must dismiss such ideologues to the furthest fringes of our democratic society.

Let us rather choose something that is alive and present to the sensibilities of our country.

A post-Corona South Africa

What is the kind of society in which we want to live? Let us be concrete, in plain language. 

For a fair, good society:

  • We want to choose, openly and regularly, our representatives to make the country work well — as a whole and in its presently dismal municipalities. So, democracy stays. (And no, neither consulting nor party appointments constitute democracy; voting responsible, responsive individuals in and out, does.)
  • We want to be protected from abuse of power by these chosen representatives and the organs of state (such as the police and armed services), and by any other figures or groups with influence in society. So, constitutionality and the rule of law stays, and more so than at present. 
  • We want to live as freely as possible from crime. Laws and law enforcement must be improved.
  • We want a free, open, easy economy. The more businesses thrive, the more the whole of society thrives. (No, this is not a call for old-style capitalism in which people are fodder for industry. Rather, the exact opposite, of mutual care between employees and employers. With good social safety nets, which reflexively bounce back into labour all those who can work.) 
  • A small, efficient state service is a must. Small, clever government serves its people; bloated officialdom serves itself. State-owned enterprises should be merely enterprises. State administration, including taxation, must be simplified.
  • The classical branches of government (legislative, executive, judicial) must function with sufficient independence, and in open interaction with broader society. The additional estates of the mass media, civil society and more are to function as treasured aspects of a healthy society. An effective opposition in Parliament and offices that protect democracy such as that of the public protector, must be highly valued.
  • High quality education takes central place, without yet another ideologically-enforced approach with its muddying terminology that diverts education from teaching and learning. This starts before school-going age, and continues post-schooling in diverse educational institutions, with life-long learning highly prized.
  • In expressing a continued commitment to “ǃke e꞉ ǀxarra ǁke”,  “Diverse People Unite”, diversity invites cohesion. Rather than an ideologically-formed single version of  diversity, which is the opposite of freedom, a diversity of diversities should characterise South African society as we strive to live together well.

Whom shall we send? 

Whom shall we choose to give expression to these qualities? None of the political parties of our time offer us good choices. Something different is required; perhaps something akin to government by chosen professionals. The golden standard behind this kind of thinking is: public service. Not power or some other seduction, but finding meaning in life by making one’s world better — that ought to be the prime motivation for those in key political positions. Those are the leaders we want.

Practically, that brings to mind a figure such as the former public protector, Thuli Madonsela. Her credentials and reputation are impeccable. She is on record that she does not want to be in politics. That would make her a good state president. Minister of finance? Perhaps Tito Mboweni, for much the same reasons. Two examples.

In general, the political leadership should be well-qualified, experienced and well-regarded in their field even to be considered for a cabinet position. The minister of agriculture should be a reputable former farmer. The minister of education should be a former teacher or an educationist. And so forth. The same on other levels of government too. We want specialists because we want success. Grandiose ideologues and comradeship networks create only real-world disaster. All should be can-do pragmatists, making do with the limitations of our country by drawing on our strengths, of which we have many, of which much has been destroyed, variously, by our governments. 

Responsibility, be it by a government minister or a municipal official, should include the directly personal, which entails that they must use the public services in their care. 

Wellbeing and care

In these and similar ways, we can build a society that is not stumbling towards disaster or teetering on the very brink. Rather, we become a region with healthy buffers. Life brings hardship, no doubt, some which will always be unforeseeable. Differently to now, with an able society, and a political leadership awake to wellbeing and care as core goals (rather than the self-serving power games), we can have the resources to handle these hardships in a non-destructive way. God knows, we have seen enough destruction in our country.

We live in a spring tide: the seas are rough. That also means unusually high levels of energy to alter our political landscape. Spring additionally means a new season. And of that South Africa is in dire political need.

Author

  • CJS Lombaard

    Christo Lombaard is Research Professor at the University of South Africa. He holds doctorates in Communication Studies and in Theology. He writes here in private capacity. He contributes regularly to the news media, especially the press and radio. He is a hobbyist guitarist-singer-songwriter (blues, folk, rock) with one published CD to is credit, and also plays the Hang drum.