Just do the right thing
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.