Khadija Magardie
Khadija Magardie

The convenient democrats

To hear former Cabinet ministers from the salad days of the Thabo Mbeki presidency speaking of the “erosion of democracy” is as rich as a “Save the Angus Cow” campaign run by Ronald McDonald.

It’s definitely legacy hour. How else could one explain the sheer size of ego that drives Mbeki-era mandarins (or should we say “mere functionaries”, ahem) to deliver scathing indictments of the state when they stood by as the self-same democracy was rode rough-shed over?

Like any crafty old politician, they’re thinking ahead: how to get up there onto the pantheon of exemplary statesmanship, alongside Jan Smuts and Madiba.

They may want us to lionise them now but they were pussycats back then.

Of course, a point is to be made about the steady decline of the nation and many are fed up with the same old flim-flam-flooey from the politicians during election season.

But this doesn’t detract from the naked hypocrisy from the newly retired (and those in pantoffels for a while now) who want to be seen to be speaking truth to power.

Their voices quivering with moral indignation, it’s no holds barred as they hold court with talk of civic responsibility, as their starry-eyed fans in the media hang on to their every word.

We should assume this person possesses prudence, virtue and goodwill. An indulgence certainly not to be extended to today’s politicians, who are (unlike these saintly former politicians) “mere functionaries after all”.

They speak as exemplary citizens deeply concerned for the welfare of the pillars that hold up this country, like the chapter nines and the Constitution.

They’re certainly not to be read as the utterances of has-beens ardent for glory and a favourable mention in the history books.

The healthy scepticism that should greet such posturing is all but absent in the discourse, so is the bit of missing context that gives their words a hollow ring.

It also feeds into a narrative that has been gathering momentum since the final illness of the late former president. That the ANC of Nelson Mandela is no more; that the South Africa the Tambos and Sisulus and Mbekis fought for has been replaced by an increasingly sleazy outfit that is a law unto itself.

Regardless of where you stand on this view, this time (unlike the old adage) the messenger is the problem.

The record speaks for itself.

Where were these “voices in the wildness” when state institutions (like the Directorate of Special Operations or Scorpions) were cynically manipulated to settle political scores? Or the Chapter nines looted as a result of series of disastrous cadre deployments?

Or when disastrous HIV policies could possibly have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of untold numbers of people?

And that’s to say nothing of the scourge of corruption that they say is strangling South Africa.

But is the public really to believe talk about being “decisive on corruption, on cronyism … “ from a member of a government that signed off the ultimate albatross of the new South Africa the multibillion-dollar arms deal?

The government hasn’t done enough to tackle corruption, yes. But it has notably sacked two former police chiefs and three cabinet ministers (and counting) for dodgy activities.

The Minister of Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu recently successfully pushed through a law that criminalises civil servants who do business with the state. Largely in response to an entire ecosystem of cronyism that began during the Mbeki era.

And though everyone has their view on its ultimate efficacy, it was this government that instituted an enquiry into the same multibillion-dollar arms deal.

So talk of dealing decisively with corruption is all good and well but don’t refer back to a golden age when things were better — except that they weren’t.

When our former police chief was running a racket right under the nose of Interpol, our former president told the nation he had utmost faith in the man.

Indeed, the record speaks for itself.

Though these may be inconvenient truths that do not suit a narrative where the South Africa of 2014 is held to somehow be a far worse place than it was in the halcyon days of Mbeki.

It may be that the current government dithers on corruption, only taking action when faced with mountains of irrefutable evidence and the pressure of public opinion.

But at least public opinion actually counts now.

Ironically, it’s thanks to the healthy state of democracy under the ANC in 2014 that these former Cabinet ministers are able to “speak out” in the first place. In fact it’s so healthy a public space that even apartheid-era presidents (whose track records are exemplary as we know) have a platform from which to condemn and complain.

These brave and dissenting patriots have suddenly found a voice. If only they’d spoken sooner and saved the current government (and the taxpayer) millions of rands trying to undo some of the disastrous policies they championed. If not outright, at the very least they were complicit in their silence.

Everyone loves a moral compass to get the tweets flowing. The Arch, his friend the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis are the types that usually assume such roles. We have to settle for politicians with dubious track records.

The public is so desperate to hear from dissenting voices who take on the ruling party, that by sheer default, the one-eyed man is king. That they should speak out is one thing. Whether they possess the moral authority to do so, is quite another.

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