South Africa's political culture promotes government neglect

The constitution of the United Kingdom is famously unwritten, comprising as it does a set of norms, legislation, institutions, etc., built up over the hundreds of years of the existence of England and the other countries making up the United Kingdom. Alongside this constitution is the essential component of British political culture, particularly public debate. The United States may have better protections for free speech, but the quality of that speech often leaves much to be desired.

An example of this are political debates, including debates in the British Parliament. Very few legislatures around the world could host such a substantive debate, for instance, in this case between Rory Stewart and Jacob Rees-Mogg on human rights. This extends to the party level: the Labour Party, Conservative Party, and Liberal Democrats all have an internal culture of public and open debate. This seems to be motivated by a deep respect for the British constitution, in which the people are sovereign, and all power exercised by government ultimately belongs to them, individually.

No such culture exists in South Africa, despite our progressive constitution. Our political culture is one of opaque internal party politics. Mysterious decisions are made by all the major parties without any input from any of us citizens. The British recognise that the sustainability of government ultimately relies on the extent to which that government restricts itself to exercising only the authority that was legitimately conferred.

The British government has gotten it wrong many times in their history, and continue to make mistakes today, but their system somehow recovers from these mistakes in a way that very few other countries could. The Thatcher government is a notable recovery from a mistake that has destroyed almost every other state.

In South Africa, we are presided over by an elite that does not talk with us, but down to us, and it is a consequence of our constitution. British subjects today are not the same as the British people of 20, 50 or 500 years ago. A stable constitution is able to take account of these changes. In South Africa, there’s a formal obligation in law for citizens to be consulted on legislation and other measures the government proposes to take, yet the absence of a culture of engagement between so-called 'leaders' and citizens makes this engagement farcical.

We, ordinary South Africans, are ultimately responsible for the political culture of our society. This culture influences everything, from how the Constitution is interpreted, to acceptable means of citizen engagement with government. This can be seen to be part of a deeper understanding of sovereignty, as ultimately reflecting a people and their shared culture.

There are some societal problems that do not have an easy legislative fix. They require nothing less than ordinary people taking a decision and making practical changes in their daily lives. Legislative fixes to our problems will not create lasting solutions. South Africans will have to build the country they want to see themselves.

This starts with demanding more from those who claim to represent us – the politicians, the people who call themselves our leaders. They cannot simply hide the details of internal party deliberation from us, when these later make their way into policy and affect all our lives detrimentally.

To be clear, this is not an appeal to Parliament to pass some law. This is an appeal to you. Only you can change the culture. You can teach your children to expect more by demanding more yourself, and explaining why it is important. Do not assume this important task is being performed by teachers.

No amount of lawmaking is going to fix South Africa. The people have demonstrated their power by ending the lockdown in practice, if not legally. We need a new commitment to truth, rationality, and science, by all South Africans. It is folly to think this can be created by institutions imposed from above. Effective institutions develop from the ground up.

To be even more forceful, the South African intelligentsia needs to wake up from their collective slumber. They continue to uncritically promote failed remedies to South Africa's problems, usually in the form of more interventionist government conduct, or more effective 'leadership'. South African public discourse often feels like a tired attempt to conform with Western academic fashions, such as critical race theory and even Marxism. 

The musings about privilege and colonialism are far removed from the concerns of South Africans. The lockdown serves as an example. You can look at social media before the lockdown: The unintelligent intelligentsia were almost uniformly supportive because it was the latest 'progressive', middle-class thing to do internationally. Opponents of a lockdown (from all ideological persuasions) were regarded as equivalent to genocidal maniacs.

Every major political party supported a lockdown. Some of them may try to distract from this by changing the subject or pointing out their later efforts to downscale the lockdown. Yet, the truth stands: When South Africans needed them most, all parties abandoned them. This was also true of big business, including brands that many South Africans had a personal attachment to.

We now know that a lockdown was so disruptive of how South Africans choose to live their lives, that normally law-abiding individuals were forced to violate lockdown regulations. This accounts for the more than two million people arrested for violating those rules. It is amazing that this could happen in a country with the experience of apartheid, which failed for exactly the same reason over a longer period.

The painful truth is that none of the political parties make an earnest attempt to understand South Africans and how they choose to live their lives. All of them seek to impose their grand visions on the rest of us. That is why we are not permitted so much as to entertain the possibility of differing views within the same party. It might challenge the notion that the party has the laws of God inscribed on a stone and are about to hand them down to us, if only we would vote for them and obey.

This article was first published on City Press on 1 September 2020
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