Democracy is not association by nostalgia, race, class, clan or tribe


The failures in our present political system are glaring. Still, Mphuthumi Nthabeni argues that we hold the lion’s share of the blame, for not taking seriously the power we’re given to choose our political leaders.

I agree — along with many — that the legacies of colonialism would take longer than a few decades to eradicate.

Progress on the African continent would have been speedier had the continent’s post-colonial governments not adopted the habits and attitudes of their colonial and apartheid masters. We should now be on a glorious path, honouring the hard-earned hopes of the many who suffered for us.

But no sooner had we liberated ourselves from the oppressive regimes of old, our very ‘liberators’ became the oppressors we thought we had defeated. Still, old habits of corruption, greed, lawlessness, state violence and even the contract murders of those who demand justice, reign supreme.

It is glaring that our politics is in desperate need of reform if it is to serve our people — especially the poor.

The present system, which we call democracy, is but a guise for political elites to be the first to feed at the public trough. Our democracy is clearly not delivering. Too many remain undeveloped and even in some cases, worse-off.

Our political systems require a progressive evolution, as does our civil service.

It’s time to excise the cancer of political patronage so rife in our politics. We can no longer stomach a style of government where the driver is only changed after irrevocable damage has been done.

As voters we have the power to ensure this.

We’re not as helpless as some might like us believe. Our constitution empowers us. It guarantees us freedom of association and the choice to vote for whomever we think best and most justly responds to our collective needs.

Present democratic revolts, from Kinshasa via Harare to Cape Town, reflect not just peoples’ discontent with their governments. They portray also our respective countries’ practical difficulties to adjust to a new industrial era. If we’re to even arrive at this next stage of our development we must adapt. Our governments fail to provide proper guidance or to create fertile conditions for this.

Political scientists say public officials and politicians are jammed into ‘clientelism’. This shouldn’t come as a shock to us. We’ve seen this play out clearly at the Zondo commission in South Africa, aka “State Capture Commission”.

Clientelism is when political parties, especially those with governing power, use a reciprocal exchange of benefits (money, jobs, public tenders, fast-tracked delivery of public services, etc.) to oil the machinery of state or to recruit political support at a local, provincial or national level.

Awards of state tenders in return for kickbacks, as demonstrated during the Bosasa depositions at the Zondo commission; and the recruiting of own party members to public office, as in the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), are a clear example of this.

We also have instances of this where a councillor prefers to roll-out basic public services in one informal area over another. And, where the infrastructure needed for water, electricity and sanitation is suddenly provided when residents decide to join their local councillor’s political party.

Clientelism effectively promotes, the much-bandied-about, ‘Big Man’ politics.

Public servants, like councillors, are too often thought to be providers and ‘blessers’. Officials, somehow, privatise resources given for public use and distribute these among their political enclave.

Local businesses are forced to pay homage if they want to to get ahead. ‘Soft bribes’ are demanded: gifts of expensive whisky from shebeen owners; free meat from butchers and shisa nyama entrepreneurs; and taxi drivers offer free transport to political events.

Clientelism not only preys on communities. It almost always leads to private kickbacks for public officials and/or their lackeys.

Public resources are distributed at whim, usually by one person, without any checks or balances. And, this is done in violation of government performance regulations such as the PMFA (Public Finance Management Act).

We’ve seen a proliferation of municipalities, provincial and national departments, and SOEs failing annual audits. And, no consequences are suffered when culprits are eventually identified. Mostly, they’re just redeployed.

It seems that public officials across the ranks act in this way. After all, even supervising senior government officials cannot possibly demand accountability for resources they won through clientelism. For, that too would be against the law. It’s win-win all around. And so the vicious circle continues, unabated.

Failures in transparency and professionalism are at the root of SA’s failing political system. This is also the stumbling block stunting African development.

To drain the swamp in and on our public service we need to clean up our political party system first.

Political parties are supposed to be good mechanisms for mobilising voters and managing mass political participation. They’re indispensable and critical to a well-functioning democracy. They’re supposed to be the best aggregators of social interests — even if conflicting ones — and bring likeminded people together in a common search for the greater good of their societies.

Sadly this is hardly ever the case, especially in our country and on our continent.

Our political associations are hardly ever values based. It seems that instead, they’ve been a vehicle to secure greedy individuals in comfort.

With this, I am not suggesting we rid ourselves of political parties altogether. But we do need to find ways that ensure political parties become values-based institutions that operate in a free, transparent and accountable manner.

And that really is up to you and me!

We have the power to withdraw our support, immediately, when they deviate from the agreed mandate or when they don’t respect the rules of engagement or ignore the common good. We can’t wait — as we already have — until they are corrupt beyond redemption.

A one-party dominant system is always detrimental to the needs of citizens. These parties have no fear of losing power. They betray the promises made to supporters with impunity as they know there’s really no alternative.

Again — it is within our power to create a real alternative!

These are not times for association by nostalgia, race, class, clan or tribe. All the things that are inspired by identity politics will inevitably lead to corruption and inefficiency.

We need like-minded, values-based political associations if we are to have a progressive and ‘clean’ political system.

Despairing and losing interest in politics is not an option; especially in a country like ours, where the price for your, and my, freedom has been the ultimate one.

Make the right choice when deciding your political association — honour your rage with an ‘x’ in the right box, when elections come.

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* 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.


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Democracy is not association by nostalgia, race, class, clan or tribe