First they came for Papandreou - and I didn't speak out because I thought the Greeks are just lazy tax-dodgers.
Then they came for Berlusconi - and I didn't speak out because I thought he was just a racist and sexist old roué.
Then they came for Zuma - and I didn't speak out because he can’t apply his mind, and he’s still running the show.
Then they took away my vote - and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Some may feel that it may be a stretching it a bit to compare Pastor Martin Niemöller’s heartfelt reminder of the insidious way we can become complicit with fascism with the growing way we are invited to disdain democracy under the cover of exposing venal politicians, but recent events in the European Union (EU) tell us otherwise. And these threats also have resonance here in South Africa.
The court ruling that President Jacob Zuma “could not have applied his mind” in his appointment of Menzi Simelane as head of Public Prosecutions has strengthened perceptions that democracy is under threat. His appointment of Willem Heath to replace Willie Hofmeyer is further evidence of Zuma surrounding himself with toadies whilst his securocrats champion a new veil of secrecy under the banner of the Protection of Information Bill, otherwise known as the “Secrecy Bill”.
And so when Zuma and ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, raise the question of the courts becoming the new opposition to the ruling party, then the hysteria level amongst certain sections of the public goes up, as the picture of a growing threat to democracy becomes clearer.
Two things need to be said about this however: One is that democracy should not be viewed a la Fukuyama’s End of History or the World Bank’s approach as a set of prescriptions, which simply code what a democracy is, “finish and klaar”. Instead it is a matter of constant contestation in which ordinary people either actively engage in and expand its terrain - or their power and choices become more and more constrained by powerful and vested elites (whatever the institutions and constitutions, which apparently codify their rights).
But, secondly, whilst Zuma’s coterie of sycophants and the Secrecy Bill are threats to democracy, there are also threats coming from an entirely different quarter – one which we are all being uncritically invited to be part of. This is the notion that elected politicians are simply not fit to govern and that technical experts and bewigged judges are better.
Elsewhere in the world, we are seeing an attack on democracy of historic proportions and yet it goes on insidiously – like Niemöller’s reflections on Nazism - under the rubric of something apparently so rational: “doing what is necessary to satisfy the markets”.
There is a business media war on “politicians”, which echoes that of the ratings agencies and economists’ attacks on venal politicians. Suddenly politicians are the ones responsible for the crisis!
Of course everyone hates politicians, but what does this mean for democracy?
There are two possible trajectories here. One is to seek ways to expand public power and accountability over politicians, and the other is to dispense with politicians and any semblance of democracy at all, and merely hand over all decision-making to the bankers and let Goldman Sachs, technocrats and economists run the show.
This latter trajectory is the story today of the EU and the rise of the “technocrats” into power in Greece and Italy where unelected people, ex-bankers, carry out the wishes of banks and fund managers against whatever electorates may have voted for.
French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel have just succeeded in getting 26 members of the EU to agree to revise the Lisbon treaty. Britain’s Prime Minister, Cameron, opted out because British politics is all about protecting its bankers and speculators who occupy the financial square mile in London known as The City.
In terms of their plans, the European Commission will be empowered to impose austerity measures on Eurozone members that are being bailed out, usurping the functions of government in countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Bailed out countries can also be stripped of their voting rights in the EU, under the proposals.
The European Central Bank (ECB) will now be able to act in Europe like the IMF used to act in Africa – effectively become the force of governance, whilst leaving local politicians with being little more than rentiers and ceremonial figureheads. The ECB is effectively an arm of German and French interests, which is why Cameron could not countenance subjecting The City to its regulation.
No one knows, or cares what the French, German, Italian, Greek or British people think about this.
When a new EU constitution was first mooted, countries like France, Ireland and Holland had the boldness to say that they would submit the draft to referenda in their countries, to actually ask the people what they wanted. When the vote was overwhelmingly a rejection, the whole enterprise was threatened.
So this time there is no talk of consulting the masses. It’s an exercise that, of course, would never “satisfy the markets”. This is what outgoing Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, discovered when he spoke about having a referendum to find out whether the Greek public actually agreed with the idea that they must privatise utilities, cut hospitals and schools so that the bankers can get a return on their gambling in the bond market. That was the end of his political career.
Today Greece is a vassal state of Germany and the ECB, acting on behalf of the speculators who bought Greek bonds, but who are now deemed to be “too big to fail".
Meanwhile Mario Monti, the new, unelected, Prime Minister of Italy and former ECB technocrat - in the same year that a referendum in Italy gave an overwhelming no vote when the disgraced Berlusconi conducted a referendum on these matters - has just announced a new raft of measures under which people will work longer, pay more VAT and public services are cut and privatised.
The thrust of the responses to the global crisis of capitalism so far is not only more of the same – the consolidation of the banks and the rating agencies and their tame right wing economists that got us into the mess in the first place - but also a war on whatever imperfect forms of democracy have existed up to now.
Instead of the crisis providing a basis for seeking alternatives to capitalism and expanding the terrain of democracy we are seeking the opposite, not because there is a lack of ideas globally to do anything different but because there is as yet no social force, which can compel the elites to do anything different.
Of course such a social force is being re-born. The Latin American social movement tide of the noughties has jumped continents and we now see the ongoing Arab Spring of Tunisia and Egypt and its power to challenge long-entrenched elites. Elsewhere the indignant of Spain and Greece and the Occupy Wall Street movements are part of the same tide of public engagement.
But this is a movement still far from directly challenging the citadels of power. This is a movement rising up out of the ashes of decades of defeat since the 1980s, a period of mass disaffection with politics and neo-liberal triumphalism masquerading as common sense.
Even in Egypt that movement is finding that the enemy is hydra-like, with the toppling of Mubarak yielding the equally violent military and the first elections throwing up religious zealots. And so while the movement is growing, its transformative possibilities are still the music of the future.
Meanwhile the global economic crisis is leading not so much to new forms of public power and popular accountability, but to rule by technocrats, with a compliant business media happy to serve as cheer leaders.
This has its South African echoes. Already we are one of the few countries in the world with a privatised independent Reserve Bank making decisions on public wellbeing. Already whilst there are ongoing public criticisms of Zuma’s democratic credentials, Pravin Gordhan’s decisions are unquestioned. While there was a justifiable outcry against the Information Bill not having a public interest clause there was no clamour for such a public interest provision when the Competition Commission gave its go-ahead for Wal-Mart to muscle into South Africa. The media were aghast that politicians should interfere in a business deal.
Back to Zuma who “could not have applied his mind” in the appointment of Simelane and the statements by Mantashe about the courts becoming the new opposition. This has resulted in much rallying behind the courts and the perception that Mantashe’s comments are entirely threatening to democracy.
In this scenario, the Constitution and courts are seen to be inviolate, experts in the field, the final moral arbiter. But this is factually incorrect. The courts only arbitrate against the law as the yardstick and the Constitutional Court only pronounces in respect of the Constitution, while the Constitution derives its authority from a particular balance of forces in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Back then, lest we forget, we had a mass movement that had the moral legitimacy without the capacity to overthrow apartheid, whilst the apartheid regime had lost moral authority but continued to have the violent power of repression. Out of that configuration flowed the best of the Constitution and the pre-eminence of the Constitutional Court as the final arbiter. But out of the same configuration flowed the checks and balances on democracy and redistribution that the old order wanted – heightened provincial powers, the obligation to honour apartheid debt, corporations as juristic persons etc. Much of the acting out of that balance was to be the subject of actual judicial decisions – which meant that the staffing of the judiciary, particularly in the Constitutional Court was going to be critical. Which is why we had a mix of human rights and struggle-aligned lawyers - fortunately the one’s appointed into the Constitutional Court - within a pool of apartheid jurors and Bantustan prosecutors in other courts.
Now, we are witnessing the end of that phase of human rights lawyers. People like Edwin Cameron and Arthur Chaskalson have made way for the emergence of those who have no human rights backgrounds but who earned their spurs in the institutions of apartheid, such as Llewellyn Landers and Mogoeng Mogoeng. Will these be the new arbiters of morality in the land?
With all these caveats it is an important democratic victory that we have the forms of protection against state abuse of citizens that the courts can offer. But the democracy of a truly engaged people should be the highest form of protection, as well as the possibilities of popular power.
If the choice is between flawed and venal elected politicians and sophisticated technocrats satisfying the markets, I’m for the politicians any day.
In this sense, Mantashe is right. In the absence of an effective political opposition to the ANC - not an opposition which positions itself even more on the side of technocrats and satisfying the markets (which, given that these are also the ANC government’s pre-occupations) is no opposition at all - there is a growing middle class tide of celebrating the courts as the bastion of defence of democracy. This hides the real cause of the problem.
This vacuum is a challenge to all of us. Instead of seeking technocratic and judicial saviours, we need to accept responsibility for the current unchallenged status of the ANC and for the compliant nature of its alliance partners, and build a new movement of expanded democracy.
There was an old struggle slogan that used to be shouted at the funerals of activists killed by the apartheid forces: Don’t mourn…mobilise!
That has never been more apt now.
Freedom of Expression
To all those media free speechers, can I read this comment in tomorrow's daily newspapers please!!
Opposition politicians must find other ways that would shift the electoral power in South Africa.
They must seek to attain the majority in Parliament.
We fool ourselves that we have a democracy at the moment. I think we need to start by exposing the intrinsic imperfections first. Once the illusion of democracy is shattered, the populace may see the urgent need for action (mobilisation). The press hails the court victories as proof that we have a democracy. Similarly they highlight the opposition to the info bill as protecting our democracy, again giving credence to this illusion. In the USA a multi trillion dollar relief package for business is passed using tax payers money while simultaneously announcing cut backs in social services. Yet no public outcry! All these "comonly accepted drivel" such as the need for foreign investment for growth as the only way to relieve joblessness, we have the vote therefore we have democracy, the bankers have the right to profits .... need to be exposed!!
Corrupt and Incompetent Government
Politicians can see no further than the next election and when they have conned (at huge cost) the gullible masses into voting them into power, they spend too much of their time and our resources hanging on to that power at all costs. Big Business can see no further than the next dividend, huge bonuses for themselves and maximum profits for the shareholders. This when we are desperate for leaders who can see far over the horizon.
Both the politicians and captains of industry are focused on selfish and short term gains for themselves at the expense of long term stability and prosperity for all. And so we will continue to stagger from one crisis to the next, applying piece-meal expedients which merely buy time until the next crises. Is it any wonder that we are now suffering a major economic crisis after decades of mismanagement? This is probably what Marx meant when he said “Capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction”. And we will continue to self destruct all the time we practice this form of dog-eat-dog form of capitalism. The market is merely correcting itself and the correction will be as long and severe as the abuse that preceded it.
Over the past few years I have increasingly lost confidence in our political leaders, and think that it is time to make some very significant changes. If we can’t rid ourselves of self serving politicians entirely then I suggest that they be relegated to a mere advisory position in a panel of eminent experts in their field, who are appointed strictly on merit. The more the merrier.
I have just read in this morning’s Cape Times the editorial of The Independent that an unelected technocrat, Mario Monti, has taken over from the ousted, but popularly elected playboy, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Monti has appointed a cabinet on non-politicians to key positions in his government. The same has happened in Greece.
I hope that this is the beginning of the era when politicians are phased out of the system and we are governed by people who have the interests of the population as a whole as paramount to any other consideration. Although he has been given a poisoned chalice, I wish Mario Monti all the best. After all, I doubt if he could make a bigger mess than the politicians and their big capitalist backers and bankers have made of things).
A political commentator said of Berlusconi “Berlusconi has always pursued only his own interests and those of his friends who could return his favours”. Of course, all politicians do that. They have to if they want stay in politics. And that is precisely the reason that I would like to see the authority of all politicians reduced to a mere advisory position in a huge ministry of experts. The politicians then would have little chance of corruption and personal agendas. Two heads are better than one and two hundred expert heads would be better still.
Politicians and big business are not serving the population. Political populism is mass hysteria and a poor indicator of a person’s real worth. It is now time to start moving into survival mode for the entire world’s population, not just for a self serving few. We have created a fat cat economy which favours the rich, who favour their own rich man’s club to the exclusion of the poor and hard pressed. We must start seeing the wealth gap steadily and progressively closing. I fear for our future if politicians and big business are allowed to continue as they have done hitherto.
With leaders who we can implicitly trust, and who set a fine example, we will soon learn to adapt to new, more inclusive methods of ensuring our future security and well being. We are crying out for such a change of things. But where are such leaders? Don’t put too much hope in Obama. I fear we will only get more of the same, but in different packaging from him although, I must say, he has impressed me with his business like no-nonsense approach, up to now. However, bail-outs for those who got us into this fine mess are not the answer to our woes. Do the multi-millionaire captains of industry who flew to Washington with their begging bowls, in their private jets, have no pride, or a conscience sensitive enough to question the whole morality of their self created situation?
Nearer to home: Is a polygamist who barters for his wives, as he would his other chattels, the right kind of person to lead a sophisticated nation by example?
With the arms deal skulduggery, Travelgate, and all the food price fixing scandals, our present leaders more resemble a Mafia than the irreproachable individuals they should be in order to serve the citizens of this country honestly.
And, while we are naming names: about 20 years ago Cheryl Carolus, Jay Naidoo, Valli Moosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa were only lowly trade unionists but politically active. They entered politics as soon as the ANC came into power. They have since become multi millionaires and, in the case of Sexwale and Ramaphosa, billionaires. Winnie The Witch Mandela was only a poorly paid social worker. But, a few years ago, while she was swanning around the world in five star luxury, at someone else’s expense of course, several million rands worth of jewellery was stolen from the safe in her house. The police were notified and a docket opened. However, it turned out that the thief was a member of her own family living in the house. So the case was quietly dropped.
Maria Ramos, an ANC member and wife of Trevor Manuel, head of the government’s National Planning Commission, and who is now CEO of Absa Bank, was paid R27.5 million this year. Want to know why your bank charges are such a rip off? Look no further. I would like someone to explain to me the difference between these insane salaries and ordinary common theft. If there is any difference it must be very subtle.
They are not the only ones by far, the ANC and big business are awash with them. Although the price of food is becoming unaffordable for millions of South Africans, the boss of a large supermarket chain, Whitey Basson of Shoprite, this year, was paid R630 million. This while about 45% of the country, and about 50% of Shoprite’s customers, have to survive on R20 a day. So now you know why your food bills continue to go up and you sometimes have to send your kids to bed hungry. Ask Whitey Basson if he could spare a few crumbs off his table. Do these people have no conscience or human compassion? Of course not such finer feelings and insatiable greed are mutually exclusive.
Probably the saddest story of the century happened a couple of weeks ago here in South Africa. A rural woman with 4 kids, left them in her shack while she went to walk several kilometres in search of food to give them as they were all severely undernourished. The children were hungry and impatient. Two of them set out to find their mother, or something to eat. The other two, about 4 and 5 years old, also decided to look for their mother too. Their bodies were found a few days later. They had died of starvation and thirst. I feel a sense of guilt myself for living in a country where this was allowed to happen.
I’m sure that I am not the only one who has lost confidence in our leaders. Surely there must be some way of ensuring that our future leaders are people of good standing, integrity and honour, and who are prepared to serve us, not for all the trappings of position, glory, self-aggrandisement and enrichment, but who are prepared to remain humble, modest, and to leave office with little more than when they entered it. If we cannot produce such leaders then what hope is there that the human situation will improve and disaster averted?
An acute analysis.