Just do the right thing

CityPress - - Voices - Mondli Makhanya voices@city­press.co.za

At the height of the Nkandla scan­dal, ANC lead­ers and pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives were al­most evan­gel­i­cal in the de­fence of their leader and his way­ward ways. They would go to great lengths – of­ten con­tra­dict­ing them­selves in mid-sen­tence – to jus­tify the R246 mil­lion that had been spent on that eyesore on the side of a hill. In Par­lia­ment, they ul­u­lated and clapped when thug­gish se­cu­rity guards man­han­dled those de­mand­ing that the gig­gly pres­i­dent should “pay back the money”.

It is well-doc­u­mented that former pub­lic pro­tec­tor Thuli Madonsela earned her horns from her prin­ci­pled pur­suit of right in this mat­ter.

Dur­ing the sham par­lia­men­tary in­quiry, the ANC be­haved most shame­fully, re­fus­ing to be on the cor­rect side of le­gal­ity, ethics and fis­cal rec­ti­tude. In essence, the ANC stood on the wrong side of ev­ery­thing that it pro­fesses to stand for, in­clud­ing the wrong side of in­tegrity.

In a warped kind of way, one could try to un­der­stand the ANC’s stance in the con­text of all that has gone wrong in the or­gan­i­sa­tion over the past decade. One could un­der­stand that, for some bizarre rea­son, the party faith­ful needed to stand by their leader at all costs, re­gard­less of what he was cost­ing the coun­try. I did say warped, so please don’t judge.

It took a de­ci­sion by the Con­sti­tu­tional Court to get the ANC to ac­cept that it had been wrong and ev­ery­one else had been right – by which time, so much dam­age had been done.

Now, if the logic be­hind the de­fence of Nkandla was warped, the in­er­tia around the so­cial grant cri­sis has been di­a­bol­i­cal. The “home of the poor” and the “dis­ci­plined force of the left” has folded its arms as the liveli­hoods of 17 mil­lion wel­fare re­cip­i­ents was jeop­ar­dised by an un­holy al­liance of a som­nam­bu­lant min­is­ter, a greedy multi­na­tional and other shad­owy fig­ures.

While it has many crit­ics who blame it for pro­mot­ing a cul­ture of de­pen­dency, the ex­ten­sion of the wel­fare net has been a sig­na­ture pol­icy in­ter­ven­tion of the post-1994 state. For mil­lions of South Africans, it has meant the dif­fer­ence be­tween star­va­tion and sur­vival. For many oth­ers, it has meant the dif­fer­ence be­tween a child get­ting through school or be­ing re­duced to a life of herd­ing live­stock or sniff­ing glue.

But the gov­ern­ing party could not bring it­self to de­fend a pol­icy that, more than any other, has brought it cred­i­bil­ity in the eyes of the bulk of the pop­u­la­tion. It took pub­lic out­rage, civil so­ci­ety ac­tion and the courts to get the ANC to ac­cept that it had to be an ac­tivist on the side of right. It chose loy­alty to a comrade over loy­alty to its core con­stituency – the poor.

Thank­fully, the au­thors of the ANC’s pre-pol­icy con­fer­ence dis­cus­sion doc­u­ments recog­nise this and warn that the party’s fail­ure to play a lead­er­ship role is harm­ing not only it­self, but the rest of so­ci­ety. The Strat­egy and Tac­tics Dis­cus­sion Doc­u­ment cau­tions that “the sense of hope in broader so­ci­ety is dis­si­pat­ing” and “so­cial co­he­sion seems to be wither­ing”.

“In­stead of be­ing the cen­tre of trans­for­ma­tive and ethical rec­ti­tude, in­creas­ingly, the ANC and the gov­ern­ment it leads have [to be] oc­ca­sion­ally di­rected from else­where – in the man­ner of ‘law­fare’ – to do right. The moral sua­sion that the ANC has wielded to lead so­ci­ety is wan­ing and the elec­torate is start­ing more ef­fec­tively to as­sert its neg­a­tive judg­ment,” the doc­u­ment says.

The word ‘law­fare’ has been in ANC par­lance for some time now, but from a de­fen­sive pos­ture.

The party has pre­vi­ously ac­cused op­po­si­tion par­ties of wag­ing law­fare against it by go­ing to court to win bat­tles they could not win on the po­lit­i­cal ter­rain. The same ac­cu­sa­tion has been lev­elled at civil so­ci­ety for­ma­tions and non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions that have taken gov­ern­ment to court to force it to do the ob­vi­ous. At least there is a sen­ti­ment in the ANC that law­fare would be un­nec­es­sary if it did the right thing in the first place.

To be fair to the cur­rent ANC, it was not only on its watch that it found it­self on the wrong side of pub­lic discourse, and had to be forced by civil pres­sure and the courts to change di­rec­tion. The first land­mark ex­am­ple was the de­feat of the Aids de­nial­ist poli­cies of the Thabo Mbeki era. But, in that in­stance, it was not the de­fence of wrong­ness for the sake of de­fend­ing wrong­ness. Mbeki be­lieved – wrongly and dev­as­tat­ingly – that he was sav­ing his peo­ple from ra­pa­cious drug com­pa­nies, and that he knew med­i­cal science bet­ter than med­i­cal sci­en­tists did.

The cur­rent pe­riod has seen ministers and arms of state ar­ro­gantly spend pub­lic money on cases they know they have no chance of win­ning, and which are in de­fence of ob­vi­ously un­law­ful ac­tions. And the courts have had to put them in their place. With their tails be­tween their legs, they have gone back to do the right thing.

The strat­egy and tac­tics doc­u­ment points out that the ANC “still con­tains the main in­gre­di­ents of the glue that holds South African so­ci­ety to­gether” and its weak­en­ing can “un­der­mine the state and the demo­cratic sys­tem as a whole”.

While this may sound self-serv­ing, it con­tains much truth. Be­cause of the ANC’s ubiq­ui­tous reach into all sec­tors and cor­ners of so­ci­ety, its clumsy dis­in­te­gra­tion and dis­re­gard for the rule of law por­tends ter­ri­bly for South Africa’s present and fu­ture – re­gard­less of who is in charge.

“With op­ti­mism and hope among the peo­ple squan­dered, the so­cial tin­der of old and new con­tra­dic­tions can ex­plode in a rag­ing fire,” warns the doc­u­ment.

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