The irony of burning things to show your anger, then voting those you're angry with back into power
Jacob Zuma, in one of his many cringeworthy performances in parliament, once described our celebrated constitutional dispensation as "funny democracy" - spitting it out as though it were an insult. And, of course, he was giggling. One was never sure when to take him seriously.
But I think what he had in mind was that democracy had become an encumbrance. The vile opposition was always trying to get rid of him with interminable no-confidence votes, instead of leaving him alone to get on with the looting. The Thuma Mina brigade, who now tell us they want to banish corruption from the face of the earth, were behind him, cheering his every utterance.
But maybe our democracy, with all its accomplishments, is a bit strange. With a general election almost upon us, the electorate is behaving like a mechanic who has all the right tools at his disposal but struggles to figure out how to use them to get the car started. A significant section of the population has yet to understand that the vote is the most powerful tool at its disposal. The power is literally in their hands. The idea that they can use the vote - not riots or violence - to achieve their aims seems to escape them.
Probably stoked by election fever, anger in SA seems to be at fever pitch. They were throwing rocks, burning things and blocking roads in Alexandra township in Johannesburg this week. Two protesters were shot dead by police in Caledon in the Western Cape. The police are always caught between a rock and hard place, expected to quell what are essentially political issues. They are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.
The politicians, meanwhile, are breathlessly charging around the country making even more promises they obviously have no intention of honouring. They're so busy campaigning, they don't have the time to talk to protesters or warn against the use of violence.
It's interesting, for instance, that President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was campaigning in townships around Johannesburg this week, didn't attempt to venture into Alexandra. Instead, he conveniently invited Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba to visit the area. It was his baby, he said.
When, one wonders, will Ramaphosa locate his backbone? A leader worth his salt would not only have gone over to douse the flames in Alex, but would have asked some serious questions about the whereabouts of the billions set aside more than 10 years ago by then-president Thabo Mbeki for the rejuvenation of the area. Instead he chose to use a burning issue to play party politics.
In any case, Alex is across the road from Sandton, where Ramaphosa had a heart-to-heart with his white counterparts. It's not a case of one or the other. He could have done them both quite easily.
But "white counterparts" must be a new addition to our political lexicon. Is it simply an indication of somebody's innocent struggle with the language, or a sign of a major shift in ANC policy? "Counterpart" seems to suggest boxes or apartness - different places or different people - which doesn't square with the ANC's purported nonracial policy. Can't wait for Ramaphosa's tête-à-tête with his Zulu counterparts.
Let's not be too harsh, though. Whoever is responsible for this gem may have been searching for "compatriots". Hopefully the time will come when we will simply have a meeting where young and old of all colours and creeds walk in and have a convivial discussion. We thought we'd arrived, but apparently we haven't.
People have every right to be angry about poor living conditions, crime, lack of schooling for their children, unemployment - the utter incompetence and corruption of this government. But the answer to such misery is not to resort to violence or wanton destruction of property. Democracy offers an effective facility not only to assuage that anger, but to improve our lot.
The irony is that those burning things will probably use their vote, not to punish those whose actions and decisions have landed them in such a dire situation, but to return them to power. Once rewarded, incompetence becomes the norm. It's a vicious circle.
The idea of voting against those who've let them down either doesn't occur to them or is too ghastly to contemplate, and so violence becomes the only feasible corrective measure. It draws the attention of the politicians to the hopeless situation on the ground without the prospect of the politicians losing power.
The same mentality seems to be at play with regard to the public obsession with an ANC parliamentary list that's crawling with looters and liars. The party has shown its hand. It has bared its soul. We know what kind of animal or monster it is, even with a Ramaphosa at the helm. But we're pleading with the party to remove a few of its worms from the list so that we feel able to vote for it with a clear conscience. The idea that maybe it's time to move on or look elsewhere for an alternative doesn't even arise.
But the ANC, even without a few delinquents on its list, is led by a mafia-like character in Ace Magashule. A fish rots from the head. Magashule is now in full command. Ramaphosa seems to have ceded even the ground he gained at Nasrec. Magashule's choice of the list is his way of circling the wagons. ANC doesn't have a few rotten apples. It is rotten. The whole bag.
Used judiciously, the vote can be a powerful remedy or antidote for society's ills.
As Barack Obama would say, Don't boo, vote.