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.