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The ushering in of South Africa’s Age of Demagogues

The ancient historian, Thucydides, described the age descending over Greece, following that of philosophers (Socrates) and statesmen (Pericles), as an Age of Demagogues. Despite nearly two and a half thousand years and some 12,000 km apart, this the hallmarks of such an era are very familiar to South Africans today. If the foundation phase of the ANC ushered in by the likes of Pixley ka Isaka Seme and Albert Luthuli is equivalent to the Age of the Philosophers, and if the era from Oliver Tambo to Thabo Mbeki correlates to the Age of Statesman, then Jacob Zuma has ushered in South Africa’s Age of Demagogues.

The age of demagogues shocks the notion of refined ideas. It is an age where qualities of excellence, distinction and talent are of little value; where politics are populated by men and women devoid of ability and morals; where we see the scum rising to the top of the political froth as opposed to the cream.

This is an age in which recompense is accorded only by political faction and intrigue. Where vulgarity and loudness takes you further far quicker than modesty and reason – reason has to subsume to pompous mediocrity.

This is an age in which to get anywhere you must be at the service of what is false and undignified. This is an age where colossal stupidity speaks with bold tones of command, and presses down from the upper echelons of leadership. It is an age where adherence to law and order is not necessary if you are rich or politically connected, where expediency and intrigue replaces vision and strategy, and where ignorance is the condition of climbing the greasy pole. South Africa’s Age of Demagogues is a time when integrity is an occupational hazard, and moral uprightness is an anomaly that causes suspicion rather praise, where excellence is punished and mediocrity rules supreme.

Our age gives politics a bad rap, largely because our politicians are mostly corruptible mediocre bunch without ethics. Done right, politics involves creating and sustaining communities in which people practise cooperative reasoning about common good, but the current corruption of morals and ethics has rendered our politics into a den of thieves.

When even votes of political branches are bought by black bags (bribes) you cannot really say you are in a democratic system. It’s as it was in ancient Rome where your purse, and only a fat purse, stands you a chance to even compete. In the liberal circles, moral shock is minimised by calling these “donations”, but it is clear these of the same vein. And our country is not unique: an American president is elected through the backing of large sums of money behind them.

However, I maintain that an ideal of politics exists – that which coordinates civic practices into something greater, something ordered by the common good. As Africans, with the heritage of collective decision-making, we should be excelling in the ordering of society for the common and highest good. If only we could reacquire philosophic and religious habits that tame and control our appetites, we’d be closer to that ideal society. But instead I hear people I respected defend sleaze, just because they’re blinded with hate for everything associated with Zuma.

There is in our country what George Orwell, in his book 1984, termed a daily “minute of hatred” of political demagogue, and the coarsening of our public manners. So long as we continue lowering the moral bar of our collective principle we shall never achieve a stage of political accountability.

The summation of our times leaves me with a sinking feeling. We seem to be in regression concerning the creation of trustworthy institutions to consolidate the rule of law, of establishing an incorruptible leaders and bolstering our bureaucracy with moral imperatives. If we stay this course, one by one, the tools of accountable governance will fall until the orderly process of doing things by the rule of law is hallowed from within, which, is fast becoming the distinction of Zuma administration.

What is urgently required with our politics is the progressive break with the past, especially the use of its shadows to hide failings of the present. Otherwise those who keep losing voice and socio-economic power will eventually come to the point where they are willing to support someone with a hammer against the system. We’ve seen it happen in the US with Donald Trump, and to some extent it is starting to happen here.

Unfortunately this cannot be achieved by just the moral indignation of the chattering class who simply shout from their pseudo liberal enclaves, while with other hand are fortifying the protection of their unholy gains of the past.

Zuma’s presidency has been the dilution of the ANC’s core. And while his presidency has been laughable, there has been in this age a gift from God: a reminder to not to take for granted what we’ve achieved, while granting us a peepshow of how things could be were we to remain complicit.

The genius of ANC power has always been in its ability to ride two horses at the same time. Under saint Luthuli, statesman Tambo and icon Mandela the balancing act was kept, even if with slippery moments sometimes. But when the earthly boys took over, one armed with learned tricks of misdirection, and the other with a glaring looting purse, things started tethering to the brink. It was always clear that one or both horses would eventually unseat the ANC driver. Within a mere two decades, unlike most African liberation movements that had a minimum of forty years, the sturdy and in-control has begun to fall to the ground. And while a fallen ruler results in shock from the masses, the gawking and disbelief will subside as one by one they start spitting on him. This is where we are at with the ANC now. The end of the road, as history has often told, is, of course, usually execution for the emperor. SA



* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.