SA’s long political sleep is over – William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-MeyerSA’s long political sleep is over

Last week the African National Congress was mugged by the electorate and left battered, bruised and bewildered by the side of the road. This week former president Thabo Mbeki came along, not to extend a helping hand and pull the party up, but to put in the boot.

Speaking at a Daily Dispatch function in East London, Advocate Max Boqwana, the CEO of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, said that the former head of state was pleased at the outcome of the local government elections. “The people of South Africa have made their choices on the sort of people they want to be led by.”

Speaking with a frankness calculated to infuriated President Jacob Zuma, the man who toppled Mbeki, and a ANC national executive committee that is currently meeting to examine the reasons for the electoral drubbing, Boqwana said Mbeki was concerned about the seeming “directionless” trajectory the country is taking and the “attacks on the institutions of democracy”.

He stressed that Mbeki had never sought to “govern from the grave”. But on a church visit last year, the congregation hadn’t even given Mbeki a chance to suit down before saying‚ “President Mbeki‚ we’ve got a problem with this attitude of yours … because you can see  the trouble we are in as a country.”

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The bishop, in his concluding prayer on that occasion, said, “…We had hope for a free South Africa… You provided us with leaders like [Nelson] Mandela and Mbeki‚ and this leadership provided that hope. Now I’m asking you God‚ why have you allowed us to be led by blind people and thieves?”

Until now, Mbeki has been scrupulous about not criticising his successor. That he cannot, albeit via his foundation CEO,  contain his schadenfreude at the ANC humbling at the polls under the leadership of Zuma, indicates that a deep and visceral distaste for the man from Nkandla runs in the “old” ANC.

It should give the ANC pause that its poor performance seemed to delight so many, and not simply opposition supporters. Many within the ANC, like Mbeki, seemed to share the joy, because it was about more than fluctuating political fortunes.

It was about SA awakening from a 22-year Rip Van Winkle somnolence. It was about holding politicians accountable for their behaviour and an electorate – until now treated by the governing party as voting fodder rather than sentient beings –  choosing parties on the basis not of habit and fear but of performance and policy.

Blinded by pride in a constitution viewed by jurists as one of the best in the world, we have too readily believed that since 1994 we have been living in a vibrant democracy. That’s something of an illusion.

Having a state of the art constitution does not ineluctably deliver democracy, any more than owning a Cordon Bleu cookbook automatically means a gourmet meal.  With these local government elections it seems we are at last really getting to grips with one of the most important aspects of democracy – accountability.

South Africans are not accustomed to accountability. By and large, politicians differ only in the party colours that they don. By instinct, the majority of them will do whatever the electorate and the political process allows them to get away with.

There was little political accountability prior to 1994. And in truth, following the first flush of enthusiasm of our first democratic government, there is little political accountability now.

After a few years in power, the ANC government quickly accumulated an appalling collections of rogues, scoundrels and thieves whose bad behaviour was tolerated virtually without sanction. When there was a sanction, it often was simply to redeploy the ethical detritus to less prominent positions or to post them overseas as diplomats.

It appeared that the government was immune to electoral reprimand for its moral and performance failures. So embedded in our national psyche did this seem to be that the prediction of many commentators was that ANC support would erode gradually, with the opposition getting a real chance at power in 2024, at the earliest. Alternatively, SA’s economic deterioration would before then reach a tipping point, causing a national crisis that would force a rearrangement of parties and policies.

But the 2016 local government elections have changed everything. Whether the ANC national executive cares to admit it this weekend or not, the elections were a referendum on an inept, arrogant and corrosively corrupt Zuma presidency.

Ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and directly involving themselves in the political process. It’s a trend that will become even more marked as awareness grows of the power of participatory democracy.

The long sleep is over.

By William Saunderson-Meyer  


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