Those who have political power do not seem to care about how the statements they make would impact on the social fabric of our country. There is a young leader of an important political youth organization who repeatedly has embarrassed our nation beyond belief. If you mention his name among the elderly in African communities, you normally hear such reactions as: “Was he brought up in a normal African family, where parents teach their children how to behave?”
Those who have the power to hire senior public servants also do not hesitate when they appoint people whose names generate public controversy. Worse, such people are placed in positions that ordinarily should be occupied by individuals whose credibility and mien are beyond reproach. It is as if rudely to make the public aware of its powerlessness! In the process, power takes on an image of an instrument in vengeance; in a social theatre where politics is about paying back staunch supporters rather than prudent statesmanship.
Instead of placing a substantive alternative on the nation’s table, trade unions become actors in a game where those who initiate discussions are short down like birds in hunting societies, where anything that flies is meat. In such a theatre, we watch with astonishment ideas raising their hands as a mark of surrender to those who have the gift of making noise.
As the drama continues, the story of South Africa develops to a stage where those who have legal disputes mobilize crowds for support and loud songs when they appear before courts of law. Indeed, no one in government dares to speak against this culture. We watch our courts being transformed into political battlegrounds and platforms on which political circuses are performed.
Alongside, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) also struggles to regain the confidence of those who understand the implications of its image crisis. While some entertain hopes that a process is underway to redeem the NPA’s integrity, hints are made through the media that decisions the NPA has recently taken are likely to be used as justification to pardon a convicted businessman who was released from prison under pretexts that could not deceive even the worst among the naive. Because we have witnessed something like this before, we know that the hints in the media foretell something sure to happen.
In public discourse, insults are used as a weapon to silence moral icons who have for many years served as the conscience of society. Such respectable figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Kader Asmal, Mampele Rampele, Ben Turok, etc. are dismissed publicly like delirious little kids who do not know what they are mumbling about. When we express signs of shock, we are told that these people represent the views of the elite, and they are not in touch with the masses.
As we sit and listen to lectures delivered by those who are supposedly in touch with the masses, a general atmosphere of lawlessness develops around us. If it is not a rowdy rabble of soldiers descending upon a seat of political power, of which all of us should be proud, it is people burning commuter trains for getting to the station late. If it is not provincial structures of political parties pelting their national leaders with stones, it is ordinary people burning down municipal buildings to demonstrate seriousness about their demands for councilors and mayors to resign. While her municipality wilts under service delivery protests, a mayor somewhere in Mpumalanga who is building her mansion in a formerly white suburb arrogantly asks: “What is wrong with building a mansion?”
When we wait anxiously for decisive political leadership, the attention of our nation is turned to a press conference convened by a high-level committee of a political party to announce what it would to do in support of a girl who won a gold medal. When the announcement is made, nobody has the courage to whisper that science should be allowed to extinguish emotional fires. In such a whirlwind of emotions, the cleverest is he who sounds the angriest!
In a city where a liberation movement was formed back in 1912, a new university vice chancellor who is clamoring for national attention also usurps the limelight spectacularly to construct his own racial jurisprudence. While some black victims of the most disgusting form of racism are still trying to recover from trauma, young racists are readmitted to university because they are struggling to build their lives. Essentially, the new vice chancellor does not believe that the TRC is no more. His new jurisprudence seems to be: do not send criminals to jail; keep them in society in order for them to repent!
As the new vice chancellor delivers lectures on how best to forgive, we hear that a leader of an extremist right wing group, who was once arrested for assaulting a black man, is hard at work, remobilizing Afrikaners behind secession. Although there is clearly no widespread support for this, we are aware that race relations are fast deteriorating in our society. A South African racist who is a refugee in a North American country and a youth leader who embarrasses our nation each time he opens his mouth are both the best examples of our worsening race relations.
As this spectacle unfolds before our eyes, we watch with anguish a country we all love crumble like a fortress built upon ice. Our minds refuse to believe that it is possible for leaders who promised a better life for all to swindle public funds as they do. Indeed, we refuse to believe that we are as corruptible as those we used to condemn.
The gap between the rich and the poor also continues to yawn as if it has no limits. For the poor, life is unbearable! They see materialism and wealth projected conspicuously by people upon whom the poor had pinned their hopes. Better life increasingly appears like a distant dream. In his melancholic poem, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, English poet W. B. Yeats writes:
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Amid all the corruption; the rampant nepotism in municipalities; and the mayors who see nothing wrong in building mansions for themselves while their municipalities fail to provide basic services, the poor in our country can only wish for the cloths of heaven. They can only hope that those entrusted with the responsibility to lead will someday remember that the poor only have their dreams, and that the powerful in our society will tread softly because they tread on the dreams of the poor.
As for the rest of our country’s leadership, let us hope that they will at some point take a break from the little game of political point-scoring, and realize that there is a country to be reconstructed and a society to be built. Hopefully, they will learn that wining elections is less important than attending to the necessary things that advance the health of our society.
So, as we insult moral icons, deploy power in the crudest of manners, ignore lessons that science can offer, and construct a new racial jurisprudence, we should spare a minute to listen to David Hume when he counsels: “Force is on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.”
Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research, and a member of the Midrand Group