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