Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
12 April 2010

What should come next?

It has been, to say the least, a bizarre and upsetting week in South Africa. What started with the killing of the politically irrelevant old supremacists, Eugene Terreblanche (who might or might not secretly have been attracted to young black men and boys), ended with the tepid “dressing down” of Julius Malema by ANC President Jacob Zuma  (who sometimes also moonlights as the President of South Africa).

Most analysts, journalists and fearful members of the white minority have interpreted these events against the backdrop of the singing of an old struggle song by Julius Malema.

But surely all this would never have been blown out of all proportion like it was, if all members of the ruling party were impeccable democrats with an abiding respect for the Constitution and the judiciary, if the Road to Ventersdorp were not littered with potholes and empty election promises, if service delivery protests were not gaining ground because of the complete collapse of local government service delivery in some areas of the country, and if some ruling party members were not deeply implicated in cronyism, corruption and abuse of power.

The hysterical reaction to the killing of Terreblanche and the antics of a little corrupt demagogue like Julius Malema would not have occurred if – 16 years after the advent of democracy and the supposed end of apartheid – all farmers had learnt to treat their workers with dignity and respect, if all white South Africans had learnt to face the unpalatable truth that they had unjustly benefited (and in some ways are continuing to benefit) in  myriads of ways from apartheid, if most members of the white minority had made serious attempts to come to terms with their own lingering (but often unspoken and undetected) racial prejudices and attitudes of racial superiority.

It is in this atmosphere of discontent about lingering racism, rampant corruption and a lack of respect for the democratic rights of ordinary citizens in which extremists could momentarily dominate the national conversation. It is time for us to take back our country from the Malema’s and the Visagies and try to think of ways to fix what is broken.

So what should come next?

The ANC and its President (who seems more worried about spin-doctoring and about spending quality time with his wives, mistresses and many children than actually running the country) should begin to face up to some unpalatable truths. It should accept that it is in power, that it is ruling the country and that it should take responsibility for what is going wrong in the South Africa. The ANC  is the ruling party and should behave like one.

It should stop pretending that it is still in exile and that the Nationalists are still in power. It should stop talking about what it will do, and actually do something for the voters who elected the ANC into office. Instead of buying fancy cars, throwing obscenely lavish parties and generally wasting our money, the ANC government could learn to be a bit more frugal with our taxes so that it could be spent to build houses and school libraries or to pay for a Basic Income Grant to assist the poorest of the poor.

Stop blaming others. Stop blaming the past. When racists exploit and abuse their workers, do something about it. When big business, school governing bodies, and other social actors resist principled and fair forms of racial and economic transformation, stop complaining – as if, as the governing party, you have no power – and do something about it. But, of course, act in a manner that is in the best interest of the country as a whole and not in the interest of a few well-connected ANC politicians, tenderpreneurs or Kebbilists, who are out to exploit BEE and transformation in a manner that will reward incompetence, laziness and greed.

Fire corrupt, lazy and unqualified officials who sit around at home when they should really be fixing the potholes, when they should be making sure our water is clean and our electricity is working, when they should be attending to the everyday needs of poor people who live in informal settlements, when they should be making sure that our school teachers arrive at work sober and on time and actually teach our children to read and write.

Strictly enforce the existing rules regarding conflicts of interests and clean up the tender processes to prevent the Kenyafication of our public finances. Expel ANC members who steal from the poor, who corruptly obtain tenders which they cannot competently, efficiently and cost-effectively honour. Try and respect the voters who have elected you into office. Stop acting as if voters are stupid and ungrateful, as if they have to be told by heartless technocrats what their real needs are and how these needs should be met. 

At the same time, white South Africans need to take a long hard look in the mirror. Very few of us supported Eugene Terreblanche and most white people would claim that they are appalled at the kind of racism displayed by the average AWB supporter. But what do we do at dinner parties, in office meetings and at rugby matches, when our fellow white South Africans say blatantly racist things, when they patronise black South Africans, when it becomes apparent that they hold black South Africans to a higher standard than they do their fellow white compatriots?

Do we speak out about such injustices and do we make common ground with our fellow citizens whose human dignity is being attacked and whose honesty and competence is being questioned explicitly or implicitly because of their race? Do we mutter under our breath or smile benignly instead of challenging the racists? Do we turn away from the social and economic injustice that lives and breathes all around us? Do we shrug our shoulders when we are confronted by the poverty and deprivation caused by apartheid and blame it all on the ANC or on black people in general? 

For example, why do so few white lawyers speak up about the need for transformation in the legal profession? Why do so many such lawyers perversely still brief less competent white  advocates merely because the advocate is white or was an old school buddy or plays golf with the partners of the firm?

Until white South Africans take a long hard look at themselves, until they stop hiding behind a smug facade of racial superiority to insulate themselves from any responsibility for the past political oppression and economic exploitation of black South Africans, how can we move forward as a country? How can we claim to be any better than Eugene Terreblanche and his followers if we ourselves – through our silence or through our often unspoken assumptions about white superiority – help to fan the flames of racial animosity?

All white South Africans need to take responsibility for the past before we as a nation can move on. This does not mean we should become cringing apologists for incompetence, laziness, corruption or abuse of power by members of the governing party or anyone else. Taking responsibility is not the same thing as accepting second class status in one’s own country. It does mean that we should accept that we have either contributed and/or are still benefiting from apartheid. It means we should show through, words and deeds, that we are prepared to do more than merely sit on the sidelines and whine and complain about the ANC-led government while trying to make as much money as we can – all the time scanning the papers for immigration opportunities.

It is probably naive to think that the killing of Terreblanche and the embarrassing antics of Malema will lead to a sudden transformation which will allow both the ANC and the government it leads and the vast majority of white South Africans to suddenly take responsibility for the part they have played and are continuing to play in the creation or perpetuation of South Africa’s problems. But one has to start somewhere, with one ANC leader or member at a time, with one white South African at a time.

It could be you. It could be me. We have to start somewhere.

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