It’s often said that every nation gets the government it deserves. Taken at face value, that would infuriate a lot of folk in this country. No one wants to be associated with leadership that appears to be without direction and, worse, seems to have very little control over the strings of the public purse.
The passing on of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro coincided with a rather unstable time in the democratic discourse of our country. As is often the case in recent memory in our politics, the instability and uncertainty came as a result of our elected leader taking centre stage, albeit unwillingly this time.
When a leader of Castro’s stature passes on, it’s natural to look inward and also hope that a leader with his kind of focus and courage will somehow emerge from the murky waters of our politics.
When times are tough and courageous leadership is lacking, it’s very tempting to say democracy is overrated. We’ve had plenty of instances in this country since the honeymoon phase of our experiment with democracy ended that we’ve wished we could tweak the democratic process and produce instant results to our liking.
With the end of the honeymoon came the realisation that our problems aren’t skin deep – they are like still waters because they run very deep. And the system in place to elect our leaders has not blessed us with the kind of leadership required to counter the problems we face.
The efforts that have recently been undertaken by civil society in the form of campaigns by the likes of Save SA are part of the provisions of the same democratic process that has saddled us with the kind of leadership we have.
We can’t pick and choose elements of the democratic process we like and toss out those we don’t. That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive to better our democracy as a nation – by all means we must. But the process comes with difficult and sometimes very costly lessons.
While it’s easy to become despondent and point to the length of time it might take to undo the damage that has been visited over the past few years on institutions that underpin our democracy, refusing to learn those lessons can only have one outcome: more grief after 2019.
One of the revered legal minds that had a huge role in the crafting of our constitution, Justice Albie Sachs, recently warned that “…the same us who brought about the downfall of apartheid. It’s that same us, and maybe the children of us, and even the grandchildren of us, who now have to create that more beautiful society that we long for and still have to achieve”.
We cannot become so despondent that we pin our hopes on the miraculous appearance of an anointed knight in shining armour to ride in and save us from ourselves.
Perhaps much of the despondency over what goes on in our politics comes from the misguided belief that the beautiful document that is our constitution should have the automatic respect of our elected leaders. It should, but it doesn’t. It is up to all of us to ensure that, between elections, we force those elected leaders to honour the oath they take when going into office.
Lessons from democracy can be long and painful, as we are learning, but learn them we must.
With democracy, there is always hope.