It is time to reboot our democracy and get the government we deserve

2019-04-17 01:21

It is time to usher in a new order that gives us the government and democracy that we deserve and of which we can be proud

The health of the South African democratic state must be viewed through the prism of 25 years of democracy and what has been won and lost in that time.

Some might argue that corruption has won.

In the past decade or so we have seen corruption become endemic in key government institutions; and those with the power to improve people’s lives have become increasingly insensitive to those very people’s needs.

In this sense, the people have lost.

I have frequently alluded to how democracy was conceptualised in ancient Greece, with the emphasis on power belonging to the common people rather than the nobility.

The word itself makes it clear: “Demos” stands for common people and “kratos” for strength or power.

In the South African context it is impossible to separate the disillusionment that many people feel from the stories of gross abuse of resources, personal enrichment and disregard for the basic needs of the populace.

That the perpetrators have remained largely unpunished for destroying the systems meant to protect citizens has added to the frustration and sense of powerlessness.

How could a country freed from a violent, iniquitous past through an inspiring and victorious revolutionary process find itself here?

How have we witnessed the Marikanas, the police violence against foreigners, the degradation of socioeconomic rights, not to mention the lack of safety for women, often at the hands of those same police sworn to defend the population, in a country with a Constitution that is admired the world over?

Why is it that people are still not assured access to a decent education, healthcare, housing, safety and protection of their environmental rights? 

There was a time when our political parties were commended for their spirit of cooperation and collaboration, in the interests of the project to “build a democratic state” – in the spirit of ubuntu, dare we even mention that word?

It is interesting that this decline of faith in our democratic leaders, or perhaps we should just call them politicians, is happening here when at the same time across the world there seems to be a growing loss of faith in the ability of democracy to govern in an inclusive, egalitarian and practical way.

Do the institutions themselves need to be overhauled and do we need to press the reset button to engender a new, more relevant version of democracy that truly does have the interests of ordinary people at heart?

This is perhaps a question we need to put to our political parties, as they lobby for position and favour in a year of both national and provincial elections.

South Africans have the right to answers about policies that will improve their lives, about what will be done to raise the level of education for their children, to improve their job prospects, protect the environment, provide adequate healthcare services and address gender inequality.

Not to mention policies to address economic inequality – South Africa still has the world’s highest Gini coefficient, which measures economic inequality – land distribution and expropriation, the rights of communities when it comes to minerals and the environmental effect of mining and the beneficiaries of that extraction.

The sheer prevalence of corruption in our country, as the various commissions of inquiry into state capture, the Public Investment Corporation, the National Prosecuting Authority and the SA Revenue Service have played such an important part in revealing, has become a weapon used by some politicians to score points against one another.

As evidence continues to emerge, it is perhaps now irrefutable that the problem has cut across party political lines, across business sectors and has implicated individuals as diverse as this nation.

We will see an end to corruption only when people start to pay for their actions and the citizens of this country begin to see offenders facing real jail time and making restitution to those who suffered the most as resources for the public good were plundered.

There must be serious interrogation of anticorruption policies across the political party landscape, but also acknowledgment that it is our collective problem, in need of a collective will to expose and charge those guilty of corrupt behaviour, whoever they are and wherever they have been operating.

We remain a country of contradictions.

Although there are those who have been able to get away with some of the most audacious acts of corruption under the guise of public office and patronage, there have been positive advancements in our democracy brought about by brave whistle-blowers, civil society activists, the media, judges and those committed to justice and the rule of law in our country.

I include here the individuals who exposed the rot at our state-owned enterprises, who have highlighted corruption in schools, fingered private sector culprits and uncovered the Gupta leaks.

Equally important have been the court cases resulting in landmark judgments, such as the ruling on the rights of the Xolobeni community in the Eastern Cape to oppose the proposed titanium mining on their communal land, sending a strong message of support to other communities facing similar mineral exploration interests.

As Judge Annali Basson cited in her conclusion, while the law had previously not protected the informal land rights of customary communities, the community now had the right to decide what happened on their land.

Linked to this is the Constitutional Court Maledu judgment in October last year, which ruled that the consent of the owners of affected informal land rights is required before decisions affecting their land rights can be taken.

Conversely, we have seen worrying attempts to undermine these landmark rulings in the form of amendments to the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Bill.

The recognition that this bill gives to the Khoisan people and their leaders is welcomed, but there are other aspects of the proposed bill that are cause for grave concern, as they empower traditional leaders to sign deals without the consent of those whose land rights are undermined or dispossessed by such deals.

These include deals signed by mining companies, property developers, tourism and agriculture ventures and the like.

In essence, this takes us back to the time of bantustans.

This only heightens the need for vigilance in upholding the pillars of our democracy and ensuring that ordinary people have a say in the rules of our land and the practices of those entrusted to manage our democracy.

It is therefore imperative that we, the public, exercise our right to be represented by those who have our best interests at heart.

There is a piece of graffiti that states: “We have the best government money can buy.”

It is time to usher in a new order that gives us the government and democracy that we deserve and of which we can be proud.

Msimang is chairperson of Corruption Watch and this is a foreword to the organisation’s annual report released last week


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August 18 2019