[OPINION] The South African state’s lack of care
Enter any government building and inevitably one enters with trepidation for these are usually places of aesthetic horror, designed to depress. If it’s Home Affairs, the middle classes are trying to get out of queuing and whinging while the poor, quite used to being shunted around with no care, sit and wait with deadeye stares. Of course, for the poor, the cost of waiting is that much greater. Most state hospitals and courts suffer the same malaise. The justice system wheels grind slowly and inefficiently, addled by postponements and piling on injustice and insult to injury. The careless disregard repeats itself again when the state apologises to pensioners for late payment of their Sassa grants. Some may say that these public buildings and the inability to fix what is broken or simply clean up is an accurate summation of the state of our country. For the lack of care seems to be pervasive and serious.
Is it any wonder then that firefighters died in an inner city building in Johannesburg that was only 21% compliant with safety regulations? Or that Denel has been allowed to continue housing a dangerous munitions factory near a residential area in Somerset West? And so, apartheid’s cruel spatial development motives last week came to revisit the same communities who initially bore the brunt of a dangerous factory on their doorstep. It is into this uncaring and callous system that the high watermark of neglect and cruelty manifests itself.
It manifests itself in the death of 5-year-old Michael Komape and sadly, others like him who have died in pit latrine toilets because the state cannot yet guarantee that they can eradicate the 3,500 pit latrine toilets in schools around the country. Why can this not be done, one wonders, when we are fed a daily dose of stories of ministerial squander and corruption?
Marikana too stands as the state’s callous disregard for the lives of the most vulnerable.
The lack of care has many root causes. At the very least, it embodies the culture of mediocrity that is everywhere present in public life and in many of our institutions. Second best is good enough. But at the heart of our society lies a lack of accountability defined by a disdain by those in power for the people they are meant to serve. High levels of corruption have diverted state resources and created a parallel state in which those who seek to loot the state do so at the expense of the poor. One need only engage cursorily with the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture to understand this.
State capture and a government that has lost its way has consequences, most often felt by the poorest of the poor. Its manifestations come in different forms - uncared for buildings, public spaces choking in litter and neglect or ultimately, children dying in pit latrine toilets, or miners shot down.
This neglect has longer-term consequences for governance too. We have recently seen the governing ANC clutching at straws as it realises it is on the cusp of an election and has failed to fulfil its mandate to the citizens who placed the party in power. Its response to such failure of governance has been confused and has sought to trying to salve people’s concerns with the easy promises of populism. Expropriation with compensation in relation to land has been one vivid example.
The past two weeks have been gloomy ones for our country - an economy in recession being the latest red flashing warning light. It is into this economic environment that desperation can sink in – so, easy answers to difficult questions become the order of the day. The EFF’s Julius Malema finding more red herrings, like suggesting the nationalisation of the South African Reserve Bank, or the lack of clarity there has been on the issue of land reform and expropriation without compensation.
Yet, we seem to react to every news day with shock and horror when in fact, it was perfectly plausible that the economy would dip into recession. Apart from what is happening in emerging markets around the world, we have just come off the back of eight years of deliberate mismanagement of the economy by former President Zuma and his cronies. Is there any surprise then that we are choking in debt and that we cannot grow our economy? Many of these are self-inflicted wounds and the consequence of a lack of accountability from those who are meant to be custodians of our resources and our Constitution.
The question, of course, is whether we are able to step back from the fray and understand that cause and effect happens in politics too. The reality is that we cannot simply fix what Zuma broke in eight months of a Ramaphosa presidency. Ramaphosa has himself been criticised for his ‘long game’ approach and his reactive stance on the crucial issues of the day. That may be so and the time has come for him to speak to the nation and seize the narrative - because narratives are important.
During Barack Obama’s first campaign for the presidency and when faced with media and political opponents deriding him for attending the same church as Reverend Jeremiah Wright (who had, over time, made several rather charged comments on race), Obama decided to cut to the chase and deal with the elephant in the room, head-on. It was race. At a speech in Philadelphia in March 2008, Obama delivered his seminal and beautifully constructed, from-the-heart speech on race in America. It may well have changed the trajectory of his candidacy.
Somehow one cannot help but think that this is precisely what Ramaphosa needs to do; to make a seminal “line in the sand” speech on where we are and where we are headed. It would perhaps frame his presidency in a way that is clearer and which goes beyond the fray of the noise of now. It would also provide some insight into where he believes the country is headed, beyond even the 2019 elections. There is no doubt that Ramaphosa is a man for the long view and is painstakingly building his presidency and trying to deal with issues like an emergency doctor and a triage scale. Perhaps once in a while he needs to share some more of his thinking with ordinary citizens. As president he is in a unique position to raise the level of debate and see above the weeds the rest of us are wrestling in.
That’s what Candidate Obama did in 2008 and it gave us a sense of Obama the man, but also that there is much work to be done on race and inequality in America. Obama changed the direction of the debate in a powerful way.
For Ramaphosa, the work is on all fronts – the social compact, the economy and so much more. Yet from his unique perch he is able to steer the debate away from vacillation, gloom and doom and populism to a greater sense of realism about the way forward. It would also throw down the gauntlet to his political foes.
This past weekend we heard of plots by Zuma and some of his cronies to remove Ramaphosa. Who knows what is possible in a party that has so lost its moorings and sense of principle? Given the ANC’s vehement denials of the ‘plot’, it would seem that there is more than a grain of truth to the media reports. The thought of the so-called ‘basket of deplorables’ getting a fresh pass to loot our country after the 2019 elections, seems as nauseating as it does shocking. But this is the ANC that has not yet shown that it can recover its ethical compass. And again, this power play, which Zuma seems to be leading, has consequences for how we all live and our interaction with the state. Ace Magashule’s Free State and DD Mabuza’s Mpumalanga stand as sickening symbols of how corruption undermines ethical governance and how that, in turn affects the poor most. As citizens, the time has come to hold the plotters and deviant to account.
So, we need to make the continued case that democracy is about citizens and holding those in power to account for their lack of care - whether it is the neglect of a building, the filth of the streets, children and firefighters dying or the reckless handling of the economy. It will also require that we continue engaging on issues of principle and not shying away from them by retreating into our individual enclaves. The bottom line, however, is that there are no quick fixes to the situation we find ourselves in. The recovery is of necessity a long-haul one. For Ramaphosa, balancing the short-term need to win an election convincingly and then mop up Zuma’s mess will be a task beyond his term of office. It is trite to say but worth repeating that reimagining our country above the challenges of now will take courage and leadership across all spheres of society.
South Africa is not unique in the world in needing to reimagine itself and a new kind of politics. That’s worth remembering too.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. Her book 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy', published by Pan Macmillan, was released this month. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february