Monday, December 18, 2006

Something is happening but do we know what it is?

Am I just being optimistic or is something quite extraordinary happening in our political culture?

It seems to me that in the wake of President Thabo Mbeki’s sudden loss of the power to instil fear and obedience, suddenly so many sane voices are coming out of the woodwork to start a real democratic conversation about our political culture.

In the Business Day yesterday there was a hard hitting column by Xolela Mangcu – who seems to be getting better and better as a columnist since he stopped his academic names dropping – talking about the requirements for a good leader for South Africa.

Although he is careful to say it is nothing personal, the column amounts to a searing indictment of President Thabo Mbeki. But it also makes telling points about the ANC style of leadership and our democracy. Says Mangcu:

First, the leader must be a democrat at heart. He or she must understand the social utility of criticism. All leaders must understand and internalise what Cornel West said on his visit here last year: “No democracy can survive without that culture of criticism and dialogue and discussion and debate and contestation.”

As President Mbeki showed again in his online letter last Friday, for a politician he is extraordinarily thin skinned about criticism of any kind against himself or the ANC. In the past, we (including the media and the political commentators) were all a bit scared of his wrath. Now he spits fire and we just metaphorically role our eyes.

Really, most of the intelligentsia seems to be saying, where did he come from?

Mangcu also confronts one of the most prominent aspects of Thabo Mbeki’s political style when he writes:

Nothing could be more undermining of that constitutional stipulation than the president’s constant appeals to race to dismiss his critics. We must rebel against the “blacker-than-thou” brigade in our government. We’ve been there, done that, and have the T-shirts to show for it, literally. This use of race in defence of the powerful trivialises the real problems of racism affecting ordinary folks on a daily basis.

And then this morning – again in Business Day, who surely has by far the most provocative and interesting opinion pages of any newspaper in South Africa – Neva Makgetla addresses one of the most important issues around how we deal with corruption in our political system.

Makgetla writes in her personal capacity but actually works as sector strategies co-ordinator in the Presidency. She bemoans the fact that politicians and political parties misuse the slogan “innocent until proven guilty” to evade responsibility for their actions.

Of course, this is one of my hobby horses, so I was deeply impressed by the balanced and reasoned arguments put forward by him. The money quote:

Still, even if many allegations are wrong, SA can’t afford to let corrupt politicians or officials hold office until they face a criminal trial. That high standard of proof would entrench the power of the rich, who by definition have the greatest capacity to corrupt government leaders. In short, we need clear ground rules on the standard of evidence for getting rid of dishonest officials, whether administratively or through elections. How bad must the transgression be, and what level of proof should be required? Should a politician’s previous record — in the antiapartheid struggle or since then — be taken into account? Perhaps, as with other dismissals, the standard of proof should be only the preponderance of the evidence. That would mean that a government leader could be forced out if there were convincing evidence of their wrongdoing, even if it did not reach beyond all reasonable doubts.

Everywhere voices are speaking up against the arrogance and stupidity of power. Will we all one day look back and realise that ironically we have Jacob Zuma to thank for our open and robust political culture? I can only hope.

1 comment:

Mal said...

Of course we will thank JZ for strengthening our democracy!

Bad people are the spur to action in a constitutional democracy. Kader Asmal, for one, ought certainly to recall that Irish political horizons broadened considerably after the end of Charles Haughey, a notoriously corrupt Taoiseach who finally destroyed the last 'struggle credentials' of southern Irish republicanism.

Bad leaders are a strong corrective to the body politic - SO LONG as they are contained by the constitutional framework. We must assume that bad leaders will come and go. But they will only go if we defend the Constitution and the limits it places on the freedom of action of the worst as well as the best.

We are not democratic in order to get good leaders - we are democratic to protect ourselves from bad leaders.