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The appointment of one Zingisile Buyana as a senior manager in the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality in the Eastern Cape is probably the most unambiguous indication of the contempt in which many of our politicians hold the public.
He was convicted of stealing R500 000 from a municipality and sentenced to 19 years in jail.
His appointment should not have happened, but it did. It is not surprising that the mayor, Nonkoliso Ngqongwa, has not been able to explain his appointment. Nor has she relieved him of his R360 000-a-year job.
It is now common practice for government recruitment and selection processes to be compromised to give preference to candidates who are patently unsuitable for the posts to which they are being appointed. It is cadre deployment at its worst, part of the reason municipalities are in the disastrous state the auditor-general’s reports say they are.
Despite noises about holding those in power accountable, it is clear the concerns of citizens hardly matter, in particular on matters of ethical and clean governance.
The state has become a channel from which to dispense patronage to opportunists who do not have the interests of the people at heart.
Of all the efforts spent to extract accountability so far, only lengthy and expensive litigation in the courts or violent protests appear to yield any results. Both are not sustainable.
The looming disaster in many spheres of South African life makes it necessary to search urgently for ways in which a different path into a better future can be fashioned.
Historically the drivers of such orderly change are those who are educated and erudite with a working and underclass consciousness. It is people born of the humble socioeconomic conditions that we need to change for the better, but with experience of the modern economy and politics we aspire to, who can and must drive that change.
Alas, many of these – the professional and middle class – are prisoners of the spoils of freedom.
The terror of losing material comforts if one upsets the powerful by arguing for fundamental change reduces them to mere social network activists who dare not lift a finger to work for the change they desire.
Many have perfected the art of ignoring or sugar-coating uncomfortable truths.
They suffer from the disease of political correctness – a clever euphemism for cowardice and dishonest discourse.
Eventually they lose the ability to distinguish between a lie and the truth. The resultant sense of paralysis reduces them to spectators instead of active players in shaping their future and that of their children.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger says in What Should the Left Propose? “war and economic collapse have always been the chief levers of change; catastrophe – unforeseen and uncontrolled – has served as the midwife of reform. The task of the imagination is to do the work of crisis without crisis.”
The question we should ask is whether we will wait for a catastrophe before we act, or will we do the work of crisis without crisis to build urgently the future we desire.
The first step towards achieving fundamental change in our body politic is to accept that we have a sick political culture. It is exclusionary, lacks grassroots accountability, and breeds arrogance of incumbency. It treats citizens as mere voting fodder to legitimise the material pursuits of greedy political entrepreneurs who use fancy rhetoric to feign profundity. Ours is a politics in crisis, and no longer responds adequately to the challenges of the day.
Accordingly there is no meaningful conversation between those who aspire to or occupy political office and ordinary citizens about their fears, hopes and aspirations for the future. Very few politicians, if any, are able to paint a picture that resonates with the moral being of Citizen Sipho or Nombulelo.
Many people simply do not trust politicians any more because they see nothing in their conduct that is compatible with those who should provide leadership in realising our individual and national goals.
The time to depoliticise our politics has come. We need a political culture where its actors are able to connect with the soul of the ordinary person because the values they exemplify are a reflection of the best society hopes for. We can no longer rely on verbose policy documents which mistake bombastic language for substance.
We need simpler politics premised on a society prepared to participate fully in the construction of its own future, and free of the lie that the state will and should provide everything. It must be a conversation that emphasises care for the next man, accountability, and the provision of opportunities to all so they can shape their own destiny.
To be sustainable, such change needs to be premised on solid ideas that respond to the conditions of the majority of South Africans. Such ideas should demonstrate clearly the role of each sector of our society and provide leadership that will not exploit social divisions for short-term political gain.
Instead leadership must be the steady hand that guides this country through its stormy waters by marshalling different sectors into supporting our national goals.
This role cannot be played successfully by people we no longer trust and who treat the rest of us like fools.
There are those who argue that to see change, more citizens must throw their weight behind opposition parties. This may be useful for the purposes of displacing the hegemony of the ANC, but it remains an effort rooted in defective politics.
Our political parties are yesterday’s institutions, promoting yesterday’s politics but profiting handsomely from an electoral system that is in reality a political Ponzi scheme.
This generation of young professional and middle-income people now faces a weighty moment of decision. It can remain quietly disaffected until it can no longer cushion itself from the collapse around it, or it can start thinking seriously about ways in which it will take the wheel and create the change it wants to see.
Abdicating the responsibility to shape the future to a few whose connection to the public accrues from an opaque party electoral list system is dangerous and against the true intentions of democratic governance. Continuing this collective neglect is an indictment this generation will not be able to refute when future generations ask searching questions.
To change our prospects we must spell out the characteristics of the leaders we hope for. We must fight to change the way institutions work in order to hand power back to the people instead of concentrating it in the hands of an executive that clearly holds us in disdain.
Key among these is the electoral system which must now be freed from the opaque party list system that forces upon us representatives whose personal suitability we never have a chance to scrutinise.
Citizens must now be given an opportunity to elect directly candidates they desire who have met clear objective criteria for the roles to which they aspire, to be trusted with responsibility.
Our present reality is that we are governed, not led. Laws are used to entrench the interests of a few and often do not reflect pre-existing consensus fashioned out of clear conversation between those who lead and the rest of society.
This country cannot progress if those who rule require court cases to do the minimum the constitution enjoins them to do, and ordinary citizens prefer to enjoy material comforts instead of participating fully in the affairs of this country.
Looking away or fiddling while Rome burns will ensure that we have more unsuitable appointments, where thieves are given government posts, and national police commissioners are people who have never trained as a police officer.
When they fail at the tasks to which they were always patently unsuitable, we feign surprise in exactly the same way we will when one day we realise our collective future has been reduced to rubble.
n Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group