For many outside his country, he remains nondescript. For the people of Uruguay — their president embodies the calling of being a true civil servant. Colloquially, he is known as the world’s poorest president. An assessment of his lifestyle may just confirm that to be true. He, however, disputes that he is poor. Rather, he submits that he lives a simplistic lifestyle. Either way, what is of moment is that President Jose Mujica resonates with the most common person in a way very few of his contemporaries do.
He lives on a farm that belongs to his wife, in the outskirts of the country’s capital — Montevideo. This is a far cry from the imposing structures of the White House or the recently constructed rival to the White House, Nkandla. A three-legged dog and two police officers are said to be his only defence on the property. He donates 90% of his salary to poor people and ailing entrepreneurs. The remaining 10% puts him on par with the average Joe in Uruguay. Large, long and loud motorcades are not his style as his 1987 Volkswagen Beetle performs the same function, with fewer inputs. When he is not feeling well, he does not summon the best and most expensive in the most private — he slides across the public health facility benches as his turn draws nearer.
Mujica’s political background is not too dissimilar to what we would refer to as “good struggle credentials”. Elected to office in 2009, Mujica spent the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Uruguayan guerrilla Tupamaros, a leftist armed group inspired by the Cuban revolution. For his efforts, he earned himself 14 years in prison while the country was sieged by military rule. It was only in 1985, when the country had found its way to democracy, that he would be released.
In the same period, in the same hemisphere, only divided by the great Atlantic Ocean, something similar was happening in South Afrika. The 1980s, too, paved the way for the democracy we now enjoy. Political prisoners were being released as the dawn of democracy was nigh. From this, we saw the emergence of cadres who had dedicated their lives for a free and fair South Afrika. At the heart of their dedication was the philosophy of serving people, especially the oppressed. What emerged, as a symbol of this dedication, was one gentle old man who would distinguish himself as one of the icons of all time. Together with the forces of change, he’d convinced those who were in illegitimate power to concede that dignity was the end, and this dedication was the means. In order for this end to be achieved, mass cooperation and collaboration with all sectors was needed to realise a rainbow nation. And behold, it came true: The Constitution was borne. With the stage set, the scene scripted, the audience seated — the actors merely needed to follow the script. And for some time they flirted with it, with Madiba the protagonist. Today, their successors have flattered to deceive.
When we were the toast of the world, having attained what took too unnecessarily long to achieve in 1994, words that were complimentary with the raised glasses were “dignity”, “equality” and “freedom.” In this context, at the heart of the new government that at last represented the will of the people, service and service delivery would be hallmarks of a successful transition from oppression to liberation. The people’s resources would be entrusted to the elected representatives who had a simple mandate — batho pele — people first.
In the very recent times, we have seen a systematic process of destroying the early gains of what that 1994 script promised. The upshot of this process has seen the dictates of batho pele disintegrate into mere rhetoric. Key to this swift disintegration has been the dissolution of key institutions and the creation of smokescreen counterparts, the paying of lip service to those institutions in existence, the appointment of blindly loyal persons to positions of authority, and a chronic failure to rebuke malpractice within the civil service. As the construction of the Twin Towers took over three years to complete, it took less than 10 minutes for them to collapse. It took one sinister visionary to cause this mass destruction. One was enough. In like fashion, our national polity has crumbled. Confidence is at an all-time low and our rulers bear witness with little to no shame.
So what happened to our rainbow nation? Perhaps we need to preface the response to this question with a quotation from the deputy chief justice, Dikgang Moseneke, speaking recently to the Black Management Forum. He said: “As a start, we should perhaps rethink the way with which we refer to our leaders in government. They are not rulers. They are servants. We cannot have a ruling party. We must have a serving party. The opposition parties can, therefore, compete for the privilege to serve, and not the right to rule, as it is commonly displayed and understood. Perhaps then our parties will attract a talented pool of young people willing to serve … ”
The ANC-led government faces a myriad of challenges and most of them come from within. What is without question is that the movement is going through a metamorphosis. The identity of the party is not what it was some 20 years back, much less what it was in 1912. While there are those who embody the 1994 script, these are mere remnants among today’s corps.
Does this change spell doom for the party? Not necessarily. It will not spell doom if, in the identity change, the quotation (or variation thereof) by Moseneke is embossed in the collective conscious. Currently, there is little promise. How often does one consume mainstream media and learn of the plethora of inept servants in positions of service? The people are unhappy and the 2014 national poll told as much. With the 2016 local government elections ensuing, it remains to be seen how much the momentum is picking. This is an indictment to the ANC, as the serving party. There is, of course, an easier way to craft this new identity. Mujica and Moseneke offer simple and effective methodologies that can restore and uplift the national confidence. With those as foundations, whatever flows therefrom would be in line with dignity, equality and freedom. Further, the rich history that the ANC enjoys places it as the best positioned political organisation to make these changes. The emotion of the struggle is still embedded in many a voter and notwithstanding the party’s many indiscretions, certain voters will never betray the movement. Lastly, it is the only party to have governed in this dispensation. If it wishes to maintain the trend, then certain hard decisions of change need to be made. And they start at the top.
It’s a simple enough recipe, would you not think?