William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
13 Aug 2016
1:00 am

SA’s long political sleep is finally over

William Saunderson-Meyer

Thabo Mbeki is relishing the ANC's thrashing while the rest of SA is finally waking up to the reality that the people have the power to punish ineptitude.

Former president Thabo Mbeki. Picture: Gallo Images

Last week the ANC was mugged by voters and left battered, bruised and bewildered by the side of the road. This week, former president Thabo Mbeki came along, not to extend a helping hand to pull the party up, but to put in the boot.

Speaking at a function in East London, Advocate Max Boqwana, CEO of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, said that the former head of state was pleased at the outcome of the local government elections.

“The people of South Africa have made their choices on the sort of people they want to be led by.”

Speaking with a frankness calculated to infuriate President Jacob Zuma – the man who toppled Mbeki – and the ANC national executive committee, Boqwana said Mbeki was concerned about the seeming “directionless” trajectory the country is taking and the “attacks on the institutions of democracy”.

He stressed that Mbeki had never sought to “govern from the grave”.

But on a church visit last year, the bishop, in his concluding prayer, said: “We had hope for a free South Africa … You provided us with leaders like [Nelson] Mandela and Mbeki‚ and this leadership provided that hope. Now I’m asking you, God‚ why have you allowed us to be led by blind people and thieves?”

Until now, Mbeki has been scrupulously careful not to criticise Zuma. That he cannot contain, albeit through his foundation’s CEO, his schadenfreude at the ANC humbling under Zuma’s leadership, indicates how deep and visceral distaste for the man from Nkandla runs in the “old” ANC.

It should give the ANC pause that its poor performance seemed to delight so many, and not simply opposition supporters. Many within the ANC, such as Mbeki, apparently shared the joy, because it was about more than fluctuating political fortunes.

It was about South Africa awakening from a 22-year Rip Van Winkle somnolence. It was about holding politicians accountable and choosing parties on the basis, not of habit and fear, but of performance and policy.

Blinded by pride in a constitution widely viewed as one of the best in the world, we have too readily believed that since 1994, we have been living in a vibrant democracy. Having a state of the art constitution does not ineluctably deliver democracy, any more than owning a cordon bleu cookbook means a gourmet meal.

But with these elections we are at last really getting to grips with one of the most important aspects of democracy: accountability. We are not accustomed to it. By and large, politicians differ only in the party colours that they don.

By instinct, most of them will do whatever the electorate and the political process allows them to get away with.

There was little political accountability prior to 1994. And in truth, there is little political accountability now. But the 2016 local government elections have changed everything.

Whether the ANC cares to admit it or not, the elections were a referendum on an inept, arrogant and corrosively corrupt Jacob Zuma presidency.

Ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and directly involving themselves in the political process. It’s a trend that will become even more marked as awareness grows of the power of participatory democracy. The long sleep is over.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer