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End of a dream? Utopia Limited

2 December 2007

Wired Gecko writes about South Africa (Proprietary) Limited:

I think it is time to give up the last vestiges of this ideal of a nation based on equality, dignity and respect for human rights. South Africa is no longer a nation, it is a privately held corporation on a massive scale. You have to look carefully if you want to catch a glimpse of it but it is there. The evidence is in the growing number of shiny new Mercs, Bentley’s and other luxury vehicles being driven (often pretty badly) by trendy young South Africans … um, make that shareholders. You also see it in the news (rumoured buyouts of major papers using custom designed companies formed by ANC politicos) and hear it in discussions between newly created business tycoons who talk about political influence as the means to greater wealth and influence in industry.

If you put it like that it makes it sound a bit like the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Utopia Limited, but it’s not really that funny. As Wired Gecko says

Instead of taking advantage of BEE programs to radically improve the lot of the millions of poor in the country, the majority shareholders have binged on profit taking for the last decade or so. Consider the what the tens of billions of Rands made in empowerment deals could do for the literally starving masses if it was ploughed back into schools, the police and healthcare in meaningful amounts, not the token numbers presented each year at the annual shareholders meeting in Parliament.

It had to come, of course. The generation that struggled for freedom is dying off. The heady idealism of the 1990s has lost its fizz. Back then the ANC still believed in participatory democracy, and it seemed that anything was possible.

I remember the first democratic election in 1994, when it became clear that the ANC was going to win, and Nelson Mandela made a broadcast victory speech from a party at ANC headquarters. One point he emphasised was that the Reconstruction and Development Programme, the RDP, was not negotiable.

Jay Naidoo was put in charge of it, but within a year he had been redeployed, and the RDP was no more. Though a ghost persists — people still speak of “RDP houses” when referring to cheap and nasty jerry-built houses.

There were faint echoes of the desire for participatory democracy when the ANC consulted people from various constituencies before the 2004 election. I went to one such meeting and they presented election promises made before the 1994 and 1999 elections, and what had been achieved. In 2003, however, they were concerned about youth apathy. Many young people who had reached voting age since 1994 had not registered as voters. They were also less active in civil society organisations. In 1992, for example, 40% of young people were involved in church youth organisations, whereas in 2000 only 17% were.

One of the religious leaders present suggested that floor crossing could be a reason for political apathy among young people, though it might not explain the general apathy. And when the election came a few months later, my own children, who had reached voting age since 1994, did not bother to vote, and gave floor crossing as the reason.

I asked what had happened to the RDP, and that was treated as ancient history. What do you want to bring that up for? was the unspoken question.

But what happened to the RDP was a missed opportunity. It was an opportunity to involve the whole country in nation building. If Jay Naidoo’s department had seen its job as encouraging civil society organisations to get involved, and coordinate the activities, perhaps there might not have been such apathy among the youth ten years later.

What has happened instead is that gradually, here and there, there were power struggles in local ANC branches. Originally when the ANC was unbanned most of them were run by people who were active in the libreration struggle. They were people of vision who were working for a better South Africa. But as time passed, some of those people got old and retired, and were replaced by others. And new kinds of people began seeking office, people in business, who were out to make money, who saw such offices not merely as opportunities for public service, but as opportunities to network and find business contacts. This didn’t happen all at once, and it hasn’t necessarily happened completely yet. But there has been a change, the kind of change that Wired Gecko refers to, and there are a lot of people whose main desire is not public service, but just to become very, very rich, and if they are in politics, they see their political connections as a way of achieving that ambition. And now we are seeing it at the national level.

This is not something we should be surprised about, as it is something universal.  The Americans even have a word for it — pork barrel politics. If we think it has been bad in South Africa, it has been far, far worse in places like Russia, which lost an authoritarian and dictatorial government at the same time as we did.

But what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us. If the government loses the will to create “a better life for all” (as one ANC election slogan put it), then more than ever need a vigorous civil society.

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