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Tue Jul 26 18:09:17 SAST 2016

The Big Read: The remedy is boring as hell

Tom Eaton | 04 January, 2016 00:06
VOTING WITH THEIR FEET: Trampling posters of the president sends a strong message but, ultimately a piece of paper posted into a cardboard box is the most powerful technology we have
Image by: FELIX DLANGAMANDLA/GALLO

I haven't signed the petition. Not that one, anyway; the one in which an angry nation is calling on Thuli Madonsela to remove Jacob Zuma from office.

I haven't signed it because I have an irrational fear that it might actually work. I worry that, given enough signatures, Ms Madonsela might somehow be legally obligated to go to the Presidency and to wrestle Mr Zuma out of his chair, down the passage, and into some sort of container with breathing holes punched in it. Which would be upsetting for everyone involved. (I'm sure she can hold her own in a bare-knuckle brawl, but nobody wants to see a person as poised and serene as the public protector get all wheezy and sweaty as she eye-gouges a thrashing head of state.)

Mainly, though, I haven't signed the petition because I'm not really sure what it's demanding. I mean, if the plan is for opponents of the ANC to remove Zuma from office within a week or two, without the co-operation of his party and without consulting the constitution, then isn't that just a coup? And if that's not the plan, and the point of the petition is to force Zuma to see how unpopular he is, then I'm not sure a document signed by 0.4% of the population is going to give him sleepless nights.

Then again, maybe I'm just confused by the wave of online activism swamping us, for example, the proposed "tax boycott". As I understand it, this is a plan to force the state to listen by cutting off its allowance. Basically, it's a game of fiscal chicken in which taxpayers hope the government will blink first. It's going to be a long wait: there are parts of this country where the government hasn't blinked in 20 years.

My main concern with the tax boycott, though, is that it ignores the damage it would do to our most vulnerable compatriots. If you managed to turn off the money tap it would mean you'd also turned off social grants and basic services. The state would scramble. It might even give you what you wanted. But in the meantime, babies would die and grandmothers would starve. Have we really reached the point where we would knowingly destroy poor families in order to inconvenience a rich one in Nkandla?

But let's opt for a best-case scenario. Let's imagine that the petitions and boycotts work and sense prevails and the country smells of ubuntu-flavoured apple pie: what then? How do we come back from having set that kind of precedent? Surely if we start believing in the power of petitions rather than the rule of law we are completely at the mercy of the most vocal groups? After all, if we believe in the validity of a petition calling for a president to be removed by a civil servant, then we must also respect the results of a petition that calls for homosexuality to be outlawed or the death penalty to be introduced or white people to be repatriated to a bog in Flanders. We must be ready to live in a country whose policy is created on Facebook and is governed by a parliament of Likes. You might want to live in a Buzzfeed article - You'll Never Guess What Crazy Legislation Just Got Passed! I'm Crying! - but I prefer my laws crafted by experts.

Yes, I know that the government seems reluctant to put the constitution first. I know it needs a kick in the rump. We all know this.

But we also know what the remedy is.

Basic civics.

It's boring as hell. It has none of the Wild West glamour of sending the Lone Madonsela to face off against Jake the Joker at high noon. But unfortunately it is fundamental to the future of this country.

For 20 years I've assumed that democracy was something that just sort of happened; a basic self-regulating machine that ticked along, powered by the inherent goodness of people and a shared belief in not being kak. But of course that's simply not true. Democracy relies on informed citizens demanding democratic leadership. And democratic leadership is a crop that must be endlessly husbanded, weeded and, if necessary, burnt out and replanted.

It's repetitive work. It can be tedious. It requires knowledge, too: a smattering of economics, a smidgen of law, a spot of political theory - just enough knowledge so that when we complain we don't sound like a medieval slop-stirrer blaming his scurvy on the spells of Jewish shape-shifters.

And then? Next year, we put theory into practice.

We vote. No more, no less.

Forget Facebook. Ultimately, a piece of paper posted into a cardboard box is the most powerful technology we have.

If we're learning, the results will show it. If we're not, well, I'll see you all online.

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