Let’s do much more than whistling in the wind

Members of the African National Congress Women's League (ANCWL) attend the funeral of veteran photojournalist Sam Nzima in Lillydale

Photo credit: Reuters

Here’s the thing. Dissatisfaction with the government is intense. 

This is true at the national, provincial and local government level. Yet, strangely, even inexplicably, everyone is doing no more than whistling powerlessly in the wind. That is why nobody in power listens and nothing changes. Meanwhile, frustration mounts, violent protests occur routinely, corruption on an industrial scale continues in every corner and our very future is blighted by the day. Things are so bad that in many instances massive payments are made upfront to shysters and nothing whatsoever in the contract is delivered. That’s how brazen many looters of state resources have become. Most of them rely on and enjoy protection from the top.

Until recently one could have legitimately asked whether the mafia was ruling South Africa. Government, in the true sense of the word, was largely absent for the last decade. It was open season for the political elite. They could enrich themselves beyond their wildest dreams with no consequences to fear.

Thuli Madonsela did her very best. She even exposed Zuma. Investigative journalists also played their part. Some activist citizens also took up the challenge and dragged political leaders to court. In spite of every effort, all of us in spite of our efforts were doing no more than whistling in the wind most of the time.

The very sad thing is that we as citizens have the power of the hurricane but we chose not to use it. We could have blown away the corruption at will. Yet, all we did was mainly whistle in the wind. We allowed our currency to be junked and grudgingly took the pain of higher petrol prices, increased VAT and rising cost of living. We sat back and watched hundreds of armoured vehicles carrying cash being bombed. We also raised not a whisper while the Zuma led administration created state debt as high as Mount Everest which, by the way, is going to be our painful responsibility to settle.

Every single day, the government has to set aside half a billion rand to meet the interest payment. Has that registered? Half a billion a day! South Africa is in a debt trap. To pay the salaries of teachers, nurses, doctors, public servants, police, magistrates, judges and politicians, the government has to raise R20 billion per month from lenders. As our rand has been junked, the cost of borrowing rises higher and higher. If the tax collection fails yet again because of the legacy of Tom Moyane at SARS, details of which are emerging at the Nugent Commission, our country will default sooner rather than later and then we will have to go cap in hand to the World Bank. Very tough times lie ahead for most of us if we remain as apathetic as we have been up to now.

If you have put your money into any pension fund you will have seen how little growth there has been. At times there is no growth whatsoever. How sad!

All of this economics, however, will not bother ambitious individuals who will gain power at the expense of the citizens and continue borrowing and spending lavishly on the consumption side. The power they will accumulate will be extensive and their ability to cause damage will be equally massive. There are those in the ANC who will not want Ramaphosa to root out corruption nor reduce the size of government nor alter anything that will be to their personal detriment. His support is so narrow that he is straitjacketed to all intents and purposes. He has to look over his shoulder all the while. He cannot forge ahead for the nation’s benefit because he is not allowed to.

The DA, for its part, is also piling up the pressure on ratepayers with steep tariffs and needless expenses on wasted lawsuits. Those who are in power at each level are quite free of the need to be held accountable.

Where does the real blame lie? It is our Closed List Proportional Election System that confers immense power on leaders of big parties. These political parties determine who will represent voters and those who are put on the list are then wholly answerable to the party bosses. It’s a closed system front and back. As a voter you either take it or lump it. You vote and then you stand back quite helplessly.

If and when those in government transgress it is not parliament nor the legislature nor the council that will take action against their own. Civil society has to resort to the Public Protector or the judiciary. The costs of litigation are enormous. For someone like Jacob Zuma being dragged to court didn’t matter. The taxpayer paid more than fifteen million rand in direct legal fees to help him escape the long arm of the law. His legal costs are still being borne by the government. Besides that, he had numerous in-house lawyers to protect him.

It is perfectly understandable that the political elite will fiercely guard against any attrition to their power base. Leaders will, therefore, do everything to keep their immediate power base and coterie happy and they, in turn, keep these leaders in power. It’s a closed circle once again. A few thousand people are thus the real big beneficiaries of our electoral system. They get to feed at the trough. They are all powerful because citizens are hopelessly disorganised and weak. Many people vote out of duty or to keep someone else out. Others don’t bother at all. The political elite love them because they make it easier for them to win power. Such people are written off during and after the elections.

Yet, every day we hear of an accumulation of things going wrong. We all know of the old adage that God helps those who help themselves. We can say likewise that God saves those who attempt to save themselves. In South Africa, voters are generally most apathetic. Those who turn up on the voting day make their crosses and then leave everything to someone somewhere to protect their interests and keep a check on politicians. They absolve themselves of all responsibility to hold the government to account. The future, made more uncertain by the day, is therefore allowed to go whichever problematic way politicians choose.

All of the many shenanigans of ruling parties could be very easily stopped. Voters have the numbers that can chasten errant politicians. They simply need to have an organisation to which they can belong and through which they can enjoy greater clout and influence. In that way, they can become more influential than party branches and executive committees. This does not require rocket science to figure out.

All that is needed is for voters of South Africa to recognise that the time has come to act to save our country even if they are going to be doing this at this very late hour. The awareness of all that is going wrong must motivate voters to use their networks, social media and the media at large to galvanise voters to form a collective that is independent of any political party. Voters will keep the right to vote how they choose. That will remain as before. What will be different, however, is the birthing of a voters’ league or bloc or association or coalition that will arise and help to counterbalance the unfettered power of ruling parties.

If a million people belonged to such a collective, whoever governs in every sphere will feel the pressure that is necessary to engender good governance and a proper husbanding of our diminishing resources. While the metaphorical cat’s been away, the fat mice ate up whole blocks of cheese on limitless credit.

Voters who are represented after an election by a formidable and independent organisation will keep every ruling party in check and take away the need for anyone to go on dragging political leaders to court. It must dawn on everyone by now that there is no agency in standing alone and grumbling at everything that is going wrong in our country. We need to do a very simple thing and agree as voters to be part of a powerful collective which could be led by a team comprising luminaries like judge Dikgang Moseneke, former public protector Thuli Madonsela and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, amongst others.

We need the Constitutional Court on the one side and a Voters’ Organisation on the other side to have a belt and braces assurance that government will govern as per its mandate and no longer treat South Africa as its fiefdom to plunder at will.

Isn’t that what we should be doing? 

Farouk Cassim is a member at Congress of the People (COPE). He served as COPE’s Senior Parliamentary Researcher for a period of 6 years and played an integral part in the development of policies and manifestos for COPE.