Our addiction to bad government is getting embarrassing
We would no longer even recognise a good one if we saw one
We know bad government: how it gleams in its bulletproof cars and struts in its pointy shoes; how it smiles at us through dead eyes; how, when the smile drops away like a dry scab, it grinds hope and potential into dust, and calls the grinding progress.
Yes, we know bad government. So well, in fact, that we don't have a clue what good government is. Ask most of us what it looks like, and we offer a halting series of half-formed Scandinavian-ish clichés combined with a general sense of Not This.
Because that's what happens when a country drifts beyond sight of land, when you lose your political bearings and your ethical compass meanders this way and that, and you have to put up with the shit, because what else are you going to do?
If you think I'm exaggerating about how lost we are, imagine our first post-ANC government, say, an EFF-DA coalition in 2024.
Now imagine that this government steals and wastes only billions of rands rather than hundreds of billions; that it orders police to use rubber bullets rather than live ammunition when it shoots at striking workers; that it pushes only a third of schoolchildren on to the street before they reach matric; that it appoints only incompetents to high office rather than convicted fraudsters.
That would feel like good government. You know it would. And that's because we've come completely unhinged.
How could we not, given our history? If you believe that the Mandela administration was generally benevolent - generous given what we know about the Arms Deal - then we're left with the fact that, in the last four centuries, we've had five years of half-decent government. The rest? The Hieronymus Bosch landscapes of apartheid, warped and bloody and mad; the gleaming glass towers of post-apartheid crony capitalism.
No, mediocre government would have been a major step up, a relief from the predators who carefully drew up plans and policies to harm, in chronological order, black people (1652-1994), South Africans who were HIV-positive and Zimbabweans who wanted democracy (1999-2008), and pretty much everyone who wasn't rich, related or Russian (2009 to the present).
Which is how we arrive at this absurd moment. Because it is absurd. Right now we have a government owned by foreign oligarchs and local gangsters, openly declaring its intent to bankrupt the country for the benefit of some Russian billionaires, reacting to Jacques Pauw's allegations by reaching straight for the apartheid playbook, still refusing or unable to present a single practical solution to any of this country's social or economic crises. And right now there are millions and millions of South Africans who plan to vote for that government.
Our addiction to bad government is starting to get embarrassing. Seriously: people are looking at us and pointing. Because to be a South African whose government is in power - whether you voted for apartheid or for Jacob Zuma's ANC - is to be that wide-eyed rube standing outside a burning house you set on fire.
Didn't you see the smoke, the firemen ask? Yes, we say, but we thought it was normal. Didn't you see the flames? Yes, we reply, but lots of houses have curtains that are on fire, and besides, this didn't look nearly as bad as the fire that burned down our last house .
So what do we do?
For starters, we learn. We learn from what's happened so it doesn't happen again. We learn to connect the idea of smoke with fire.
Then, knowing that power corrupts everybody (even Cape liberals and revolutionaries from Seshego), and knowing that the ANC will be out of power in the next 10 years, we start fireproofing our post-ANC politics.
Now, when we see smoke inside our political home - a whiff of megalomania, a spark of corruption - we raise the alarm. And we reject the inevitable accusations of disloyalty that follow such acts. We remind each other that blind, aggressive defence of a political party is a blank cheque for the corrupt, and that the greatest service we can offer our politics is intelligent scepticism.
Finally, we find out for ourselves what good government looks like, and we demand it or we withhold our votes.
Because we can't do all this again. It's getting embarrassing.
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