Disc Dem

Disc Dem

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Short Walk from Democracy to Shamocracy

What does “democracy” mean in the 21st century? In the same way that we tend to blindly accept the diagnosis of a trusted doctor, we also blindly accept the established political narrative that one-man-one-vote is the pinnacle of democracy.  This narrative is based on a premise that voters have sufficient intellect and education to assess the reasonability of alternative political ideologies.  American economist and social theorist, Thomas Sowell, pointed out a fundamental problem with this, when he observed - “One of the painful signs of years of dumbed-down education is how many people are unable to make a coherent argument. They can vent their emotions, question other people's motives, make bold assertions, repeat slogans-- anything except reason”.  Five minutes spent on any social media platform will allay any doubts you may harbour as to the truth of this observation.

With objective political reasoning of voters disappearing around the world, money has been talking louder than the electorate for quite some time.  In the 2016 Trump/Clinton Presidential campaigns in the USA for example, a combined $1.16 billion was spent on direct campaign expenses just for the two of them. On top of that they received an assessed $8.24 billion in “free” media coverage. Someone, somewhere, is handing over large amounts of money to make this happen, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the voting masses. Who it is, and what they want for their investment I’ll leave to your imagination. 

It certainly suits wealthy political donors to have the masses believe that by casting their vote they are participating in “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, while they quietly control government policy from the shadows. Such a “government of the state by the wealthy” is called a plutocracy. It has been argued that any country that holds democratic elections cannot, by definition, be plutocratic, but with the amount of money needed for politicians to campaign for election, this argument is questionable.

The situation in South Africa is more clear-cut. Our President is a billionaire, and apart from whatever other “perks” of office they may attract, our politicians rank among the highest paid individuals in the country. The poor have become destitute while the politically connected have become fabulously rich - we are literally, without fear of contradiction, being governed by the wealthy. We have become a plundering plutocracy of note, but how did we reach such a low point?

In 1994 not all, but most of us, both Black and White, set out to turn the dream of a “Rainbow Nation” into reality. To forge a Nation where equality of opportunity was paramount, and where no-one would be left behind simply through circumstance.  24 years later, our basic infrastructure remains in place, mineral resources are still extensive, our flora & fauna is stunning, and the diaspora of people is our greatest untapped asset – but these solid foundations for nation-building have been undermined by the insidious game of money-driven, divisive politics that has been playing out over the last two decades.

Following the almost euphoric interlude of Nelson Mandela’s Presidency, we endured nine years of Thabo Mbeki, who obviously skipped Governance 101 lectures regarding the absolute necessity to have a strong, politically independent and experienced Civil Service. During his tenure, Mbeki single-handedly decimated the Civil Service by replacing all the experience and institutional memory of White officials with untested, inexperienced, and mostly underqualified ANC cadres. Instead of adopting a Mentor/Understudy approach where institutional memory could have been transferred, and experience gained in an orderly fashion, Whites were deliberately marginalised as he went straight into politically dependent direct replacement mode. 

This is when the service delivery rot started to set in - not because all the ANC people Mbeki appointed were incapable or incompetent but, to draw an analogy, it was the equivalent of putting a newly-licenced 17-year old driver behind the wheel of a Formula 1 Ferrari, with a command to win their first race. Failure was inevitable, but failure was something Mbeki consistently refused to acknowledge, so incompetence and corruption were passed off as being White sour grapes. Deflection became an integral part of the blame game, and so the smouldering embers of “identity politics”, so nearly doused by Mandela, were rekindled. Some disaffected Whites also did their best to fan the flames, with their most popular dinner table topics revolving around the inability of Blacks to run anything - usually delivered with a smug “I-told-you-so” nuance. The more Mbeki refused to acknowledge incompetence and corruption in his administration, the more emboldened his appointees became to accumulate undeserved wealth while evading accountability, and the more derisory the comments became around some melanin-challenged dinner tables.

Through his own denialism, Mbeki triggered our downward spiral and unwittingly set the scene for the entry of one Jacob Zuma. The wounds of his tenure are too deep and too fresh to need repetition, except to say that Zuma obviously exploited the lack of accountability, fostered by Mbeki, to corruptly accumulate obscene levels of familial wealth. The rest is history as they say, except to recognise that the political damage inflicted on South Africa by Zuma may ultimately prove more difficult to rectify than the financial damage. 

Through his system of patronage that rewarded personal loyalty over party loyalty and constituency accountability, Zuma was the prime architect and major beneficiary of South Africa’s politocracy - a form of government that emerges in multi-party systems where politicians work for themselves, not for their party, nor the electorate. Anyone requiring further proof beyond Zuma that we have become a fully-fledged politocracy need only to look at recent events in Northwest Province. If Premier Supra Mahumapelo was self-respecting rather than self-serving, he would have immediately and voluntarily stepped down, if not for the sake of the Province, at least for the sake of his party. Unfortunately, it seems he will eventually have to be dragged away from the public trough, no doubt kicking and screaming the whole way.

Mahumapelo is just one example of the many ANC politicians who put their personal wellbeing above their party and the electorate. It is easy to name-and-shame them all, and to clamour for the ANC to be voted out of power in 2019, but who or what will replace them? The DA, who within their own ranks have a fair share of politicians happy to give the party a very damaging middle-finger? Or those wannabe champions of the poor and downtrodden, the EFF, whose leadership consists of a tax delinquent; a serial bully who happily assaults journalists; and a failed CEO of the SABC, who walked away with an R11m golden handshake after just 18 months of mismanaging the national broadcaster? 

So here we are in 2018 in our Shamocratic State, looking for answers in all the wrong places. The DA is busy imploding, seemingly not knowing how to find their way out of the mess they dropped themselves into with Patricia de Lille, and Cyril Ramaphosa is having to pussyfoot his way around the minefield of ANC factions he inherited from Jacob Zuma. As it stands, our two main political parties appear incapable of governing themselves, let alone the country. In the meantime, the EFF are singularly hell-bent on fomenting racial hatred, which if left unchecked for much longer will almost certainly end in tears. EFF leaders have also missed the obvious irony in their political posturing. Depriving state coffers of desperately needed funds, either by not paying due taxes, or by taking extortionate hand-outs from public enterprises, is simply another form of stealing from the poorest of the poor hidden behind the thinnest veil of legitimacy.

Fine choices for the 2019 National elections don’t you think? 

We have a beautiful country populated by a wonderful diversity of people - but to quote Chief Justice Mogoeng speaking to delegates at the 2018 South Africa Brand Summit "Institutional racism has gone too far. There are far too many messages going out there and I am not sure the outside community knows who to listen to any more. We owe it to ourselves to examine what needs to be done to unite South Africa racially. We have had enough incidences to drive home the urgency to address the problem, and not just pay lip service to it. I live this country and I believe that we can pull it back from the edge. We need to choose ethical leaders, whoever they are, and we need to protect our world class institutions."

Can we still find ethical leaders within our existing Shamocracy when there is no motivation for any of them to change the status quo?  They enjoy an elevated status that pays extremely well, and they can apparently say and do whatever they please without fear of censure or retribution. Where mere mortals are jailed for inciting racial hatred, tender fraud, perjury, assault, or just plain theft, politicians accused of the same offences remain untouched.

As divisive political rhetoric is the last resort of politicians who have no practical policy ideas to unite the country, we should be ignoring these empty barrels and rather be calling them to account for their transgressions. It is past time for Blacks and Whites to join hands to defeat the perverse political assault on our democracy, to find the common ground that will take us all forward, and not backwards to the dark days of racial conflict. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of listening to politicians who seem to have only two modes of address, either strident, or vacuous– it really is time we made them listen to us.

Don't despair, we have a great country with infinite potential. Change may seem impossible but "It's only impossible until it's done" - Nelson Mandela

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The Business of Politics

The appalling behaviour of ANC, EFF and UDM councillors in Nelson Mandela Bay’s council chamber on Thursday 29th March 2018 provides further irrefutable proof that once elected, politicians become a law unto themselves.  
It is blatantly obvious these people have no concern for their constituents, so why on earth did they choose a career in politics? The simple answer is that politics is just another business opportunity that pays better than most jobs, not only in South Africa, but worldwide. The £77k per year basic salary for Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom puts them in the top 5% of earners in the UK, and the $174k per year basic salary for Senators in the United States puts them in the top 3% of earners in the USA.
South African politicians, however, top this list. According to SARS 2016 published statistics, out of more than 19 million registered taxpayers in South Africa, only 19,834 are paid more than R1million - a relatively small number of people that, shock and horror, includes Members of Parliament, Government Ministers, Members of the Provincial Legislature, Executive Mayors of larger municipalities, Municipal Managers and members of Executive Committees in Metro councils etc. etc.
If you haven’t worked it out yet, a R1m+ annual basic salary puts most SA politicians not in the top 5%, nor the top 3%, but in the top 0.1% of registered taxpayers. In other words, 99.9% of South Africans earn less than most politicians throughout all levels of what we laughingly refer to as “Government”! High incomes, coupled with Napoleon Bonaparte’s observation “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap” explains why so many self-serving idiots are in political positions of authority. 
In this parallel universe, politicians behave as if they are the most elite of the elite. They indulge in obscenely conspicuous displays of wealth that serve no purpose other than to impress “the masses” with their exalted status. Ex-President Jacob Zuma has been seen wearing R500k Swiss watches, yet he never managed to turn up anywhere on-time - ever;  the Gucci Marxists of the EFF have been seen wearing $1000 Louboutin shoes while driving top-of-the-range luxury vehicles, only to change into their public-performance outfits of pristine condition overalls and hardhats, neither of which have seen a hard day’s work in their 5 years of wear.
Such behaviour adds credence to the presumption that political parties in South Africa are just for-profit businesses. Their “ideological manifestos” are simply the packaged products they use to attract the largest possible market share of voters. The bigger their market share, the more profitable the business becomes.
Political parties actively encourage their public representatives to throw National Interest under the bus in favour of scoring cheap political points that might appeal to their “target market”.  They also slavishly defend the corrupt and incompetent within their ranks, not in the public interest, but in the name of “unity”, or because they refuse to acknowledge their mistake in appointing these people in the first place. On the other side of their perverse political coin, they severely punish those who refuse to toe the party line when it conflicts with their individual ethical, and moral imperatives.
It is clear, at least to me, that South Africa’s Democracy (“A system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives.”) is a Unicorn – in other words it captivates our imagination but is nonetheless just a mythical fantasy. We certainly do not rule directly, although every five years we can freely vote for a political party. However, under the Proportional Representation electoral system, it is the party that selects National Assembly representatives – not us.  What this really means is that when we cast our vote in National elections, we are also meekly surrendering any, and all power we might have to political party leaders. That they are so disdainful of us for four years out of their five-year terms of office is therefore unsurprising.
Even in local government elections where we can directly elect our Ward councillor, the system is corrupted by having the same number of Proportional List councillors dumped on us. I have written over 35 articles on why this is patently wrong, so will not repeat myself here. Suffice to say that our Local Government Proportional Representation system appears to be founded on the misguided principle that having two idiots meddling in council affairs is better than having just one.
The Nelson Mandela Bay fiasco is an example of the “two idiots” analogy that also highlights everything else that is wrong with our current political dispensation. From the EFF attempting their “tail wags the dog” illusion, through every other shade of disgraceful behaviour by the ANC and EFF, to the infantile kindergarten antics of the UDM’s Mongameli Bobani, these idiots behaved shamefully. That they did so safe in the knowledge that they will not be sanctioned, is the final indictment of how far our democratic standards have fallen.
Not only has our State been captured through the actions and inactions of errant politicians but we, the electorate, have also allowed established political cabals to completely capture our democracy. The ability to vote every five years does not, on its own, make us a democracy. We must also be able to hold our elected representatives to account for every single day of their term of office, and there must be enforceable sanctions for breach of trust.
So, how do we even begin to drag our politicians back into the world of real and effective accountability?   To start the ball rolling, my “To Do” list includes:

  • Redefine more accountable constituency-based Electoral Systems:  This is a priority as political parties, and their leaders, have demonstrated time-after-time that they cannot be trusted to put our interests above their own.
  • Limit Executive powers:   Our experiences with Jacob Zuma demand that we reduce the almost dictatorial powers of the President - powers that can be wielded at the drop of a hat, based on nothing more than the President’s “pleasure”.
  • Define meaningful and enforceable sanctions for breaching an oath of office:   Once again the Zuma years demonstrated the unlimited capacity of politicians to duck and dive away from accountability. This must be stopped, particularly when they use even more of our money to defend themselves against stealing our money in the first place.
  • Align National/Provincial and Local Government Elections, all to be held simultaneously: Voting a party out at the National/Provincial level in 2019 will not change the status of that party at Municipal level – you will have to wait for the next Local Government elections in 2021 for that to happen. Service delivery is a function of all levels of government, so why hold separate elections? If we want a party out because of poor service delivery then we need them out at all levels of government at the same time, which can only happen if all three levels are elected simultaneously.
  • Reduce the terms of office at all levels of government from 5 years to 4 years:   This, for me, is an obvious no-brainer. We must not allow politicians the time to become “comfortable” in their positions, nor the time to hatch complicated plans such as Zuma’s State Capture project. Reducing their terms of office by 20% brings their ultimate accountability around that much faster.
  • Examine whether to redefine or eliminate Provincial Governments and District Municipalities:  The way they presently operate is seemingly not only as very expensive middlemen for funds flowing from central government, but also as additional and perhaps unnecessary enabling levels for corrupt politicians and officials to syphon funds into their own pockets. Removing these ineffective levels of government or increasing their powers to enable more effective governance needs to be carefully investigated.
As individuals we may feel the task of changing the political status quo is insurmountable, but as a collective I believe anything is possible. To make a significant difference, a part of the change must include the way we, as individuals, think and behave in society. Democracy involves more than just voting every five years. We must all actively engage not only with our governing structures to ensure they deliver what we want, but with each other to ensure that everyone in our fragile society gets what they need. If we all “live” democracy, then I sincerely believe we can rebuild societal trust that our politicians are working so hard to destroy.