Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Show’s over: Beyond the abracadabra of political promises

The magical abracadabra promises of “houses, jobs, beer for all” are not unlike a magic show where you know it’s staged but you suspend logic for the entertainment. But, deep inside you is that secret desire that maybe, just maybe, there is truth to this magic, and somehow it is real, more than a sleight of hand or optical illusion. After all, when the final bow is given and the stage curtain is drawn, we reluctantly exit the theatre doors knowing that the less impressive ordinariness of everyday life awaits us. Elections are over. It’s back to gritty reality.

Watching political foes slug it out left the undecided voter, like me, confused. Could I untangle the glorious visions from the hollow rhetoric? Amazing new policy directions tried to convince the gullible and vulnerable. Feigned empathy tried to emotionally align parliamentary job-seekers with the homeless and unemployed. But, it was the tone of utter urgency that most amused me. That “just-give-us-a-chance-and-I’ll-prove-to-you-tomorrow” manic oratory.

Heidi Holland, the late author of Dinner with Mugabe, wrote a column imagining what our 20 years of democracy in South Africa will be like. She emphasised rising disillusionment, but that “to be disillusioned is to be finally free of illusions — not a bad thing in itself. Among the unrealistic expectations we had of Madiba was that he would absolve us from the sins of a terrible past … equally, some of the promises made by the ANC were bound to be broken for the simple reason that they were impossible to fulfil”.

Like Holland, I realised that disillusionment is necessary. It cleared up the smoke and razzmatazz of our election theatrics. It allows us to abandon notions of magic wands in the hands of political wizards. It restores power where it belongs — with us, the people, the active citizens.

This is possibly why the erudite Arundhati Royi, author of Listening to Grasshoppers, starts her powerful and razor-sharp book on democracy in India with a dedication “to those who have learned to divorce hope from reason”.

Disillusionment opens up new discourses — a move away from entitlement, towards responsibility. It is completely understandable to expect the government to provide you with the basic material necessities for a decent life but do we balance the complex interplay between active citizens and active government?

The anti-apartheid struggle did not happen overnight; neither will our democracy be safeguarded merely through the act of voting. Voting is a process, one that we begin the moment our new government is sworn in after each election. The act of putting our X next to a political party is a reflective pause in the cycle of democracy. When the new president and his ministers are sworn in, the process of holding them to account for their actions begins all over again. Simply voting is not enough. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

The hysteria of electioneering ignored our day-to-day vigilance that keeps democracy and freedom alive, community activism. This means that in the spaces in between elections, active citizens are the vanguard of our secular, constitutional democracy. It’s a cliché worth repeating a thousand times over, but the mantra of our post-apartheid struggle surely needs to be that the price we pay for freedom is eternal vigilance.

This eternal vigilance means accepting that politicians are flawed human beings; institutions will always have corrupt elements; promises will be broken; and that there will be pain and waiting. But there is pride and purpose in vigilance too, excitement and energy in finding creative ways to inspire continuous ethical leadership in ourselves and others.

There were 29 parties on the ballot sheet. Whatever choice you and I made, wherever we placed our trust and faith, let us remember that it is us, the citizens, that have the real power, and we must spend these five years until the next election, using that power.

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