JUDITH FEBRUARY: With promises aplenty, South Africa is in full election mode

OPINION

After considerable legal back and forth, South Africa is in full election mode.

Until 1 November we will be subjected to politicians proclaiming that they hold the solutions to the myriad challenges facing our beleaguered country. Some of the politicians making these promises are directly responsible for the community degradation, yet will now magically be able to course correct.

It is easy to become cynical during an election cycle. Politicians over-promise and inevitably only call upon ‘the people’ when they need their votes.

In recent days President Ramaphosa was seen dancing alongside a fitness group and was also met by protesting residents of Tembisa. He has even taken questions from the media while on the stump.

Ramaphosa seems almost preternaturally positive wherever he goes, admitting some failures, but always looking on the bright side. It’s probably easy to be sanguine if you’re the President. You don’t have to endure sewage flowing down the streets or the violence of everyday poverty, after all.

The promises are trite, shapeless, shameless and uninteresting. On the weekend, the ANC’s Paul Mashatile was seen doling out cash during a visit to a church in Makhado. Mashatile said he was handing out money for tithes. Who would possibly believe that? It was, quite simply, cash for a (possible) vote. How venal and how very crude, akin to the panem et circenses (bread and games) of Ancient Rome.

As Julius Malema unveiled the EFF manifesto, he promised the earth. Most of it was also way beyond the mandate of a local government municipality, but why let the facts and constitutional arrangements get in the way of a few soundbites?

The GOOD party is waging war against the DA in Cape Town even as Patricia De Lille, its leader, was mayor of the DA-led city and is in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet where she has been responsible for a few of her own mishaps.

The DA declares in its wordy posters all over Cape Town that things work here. It’s an unfortunate word choice because one wants to scream, ‘for some!’ after driving by every lamppost.

Politicians over-promising is not new and not specifically unique to South Africa.

Of course, the ANC has uniquely squandered its opportunities in power and has, in most of the municipalities it runs, created an almighty mess. That mess is tied to cadre deployment which has seen some of the most unskilled individuals run our towns and cities. Many of them are also deeply corrupt and use local government networks as their personal fiefdoms and to feather their nests. The jostling for positions is fierce and has even become violent in some parts of the country.

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The latest Afrobarometer findings indicate that South Africans have mostly lost faith in democratic institutions and view corruption as worsening during Ramaphosa’s tenure.

The President himself quoted these findings in his Twitter feed. At least we have a President who reads.

Of course, given the daily dose of the Zondo Commission evidence and stories like the Digital Vibes corruption and then PPE-related corruption most recently, these findings should come as no surprise. Corruption is uppermost in most citizens’ minds.

In his latest newsletter, Ramaphosa referred to ‘revelations’ that “thousands of public servants have been illegally receiving social grants every month shows we still have a long way to go towards instilling a culture of ethics in the public service”.

He went on to mention the establishment of a ‘Public Administration Ethics, Integrity and Disciplinary Technical Assistance Unit’. The unit will build capacity within public bodies to institute disciplinary proceedings in cases of misconduct and cooperate with other organs of state in holding those responsible to account. The unit will refer corruption cases to government’s Anti-Corruption Task Team and follow up with departments to ensure criminal cases involving public servants translate into disciplinary cases. Working with the multi-agency Fusion Centre, the unit will help identify employees in priority cases investigated by law enforcement authorities.’ Ramaphosa ended by calling on public servants to adhere to ethical standards.

The problem is that with a seemingly hamstrung National Prosecuting Authority and a police service which is inept, together with the Hawks which lack capacity and often the will, there are virtually no consequences for those who are corrupt. We are yet to see the powerful being arrested, charged and tried for corruption. One high-profile conviction could be a game-changer.

The so-called ‘fight against corruption’ also starts at the top. If Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula can rise to being Speaker of Parliament despite several clouds of corruption hanging over her head, then it makes a mockery of the ANC (or the President’s stand against corruption). There are many more examples which undermine ethical governance.

Ramaphosa has now released the ‘Digital Vibes’ SIU Report in the same week as we learnt that Director-General, Sandile Buthelezi, had been suspended pending a disciplinary enquiry related to his role in this scandal. We seem very good at dealing with foot soldiers (with differing measures of success), yet what will actually happen to Zweli Mkhize now that the SIU has made damning findings against him and also Anban Pillay of the Department of Health?

READ IN FULL: President Ramaphosa releases SIU report into Digital Vibes

Actions matter far more than words, especially to a citizenry tired of empty promises.

The woes at local government level are many and the deep dysfunction is real. The Auditor-General’s report on the state of local government audit outcomes is instructive and makes for pretty dismal reading. The report has repeatedly highlighted poor procurement practices, wasteful and fruitless expenditure and a lack of ethical leadership.

And so, when Ramaphosa visited Mbombela recently, he declared that he was ‘by and large’ satisfied with service delivery in the area. ‘By and large’. Residents who were interviewed wanted clarity on the construction of a bridge. The President declared it would commence ‘on Tuesday’.

How many Tuesdays have come and gone for these residents, one wonders? The way in which most ANC municipalities are run is a study in abject failure, after all. Of course there are always exceptions. Senqu local municipality in the Eastern Cape was the only one of the Eastern Cape’s 39 municipalities to receive a clean audit every year since 2016. Mayor Nomvuyo Mposelwa runs a tight ship and has instilled a culture of accountability. This is a rare story in South Africa.

The dysfunction is also embedded within the ANC. Its internal machinery is falling apart. The party has been unable to pay its staff and ensure that candidate lists were submitted in time. Fortunately they received a lifeline in the form of the ConCourt judgment. But really, it tells us everything we need to know about a party in disarray and not being managed properly.

The question for Ramaphosa is whether the charm offensive and the ANC’s election machine will work yet again, despite the deep levels of despair amongst voters? One thing which is certain is that the large cohort of young voters is increasingly apathetic.

Opposition parties should be exploiting the weaknesses of the governing ANC, but it remains to be seen whether South Africans will head to the polls in numbers. All parties have manifestos which we should be reading and understanding, but perhaps we are all too cynical to take the time?

We should not discount the power of independent candidates in this election - as either causing upsets, or as being kingmakers where coalitions are needed. Coalitions are almost inevitable and may well be the cause of political instability. Either way, this election cycle will bring with it the same platitudes and promises.

As citizens it is our job to hold those who are elected to account. Democracies die when we become cynical and when we retreat to our laagers. All around the world we are witnessing democratic retreat, from Orban’s Hungary, Bolsanaro’s Brazil, the United States and India. It comes in the form of misinformation, fake news, electoral autocracy or outright limiting of rights.

On 1 November, we have some opportunity to exercise our democratic right with our vote. But, democracy is about more than voting. Our Constitution envisages something far more when it talks of participation. It requires us to be active citizens wherever we find ourselves. Democracy is work.

US politician and civil rights leader John Lewis’s reminder before his death is true as much for the US as it is for South Africa: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

The election provides us with one opportunity to think carefully where we place our cross. But more than this, we need to keep faith with the essentials of our democracy and continue its work. Because what we have learnt, specifically after the violence of July, is that we are truly on our own. We cannot trust the politicians to bring us out of the quagmire.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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