When a small-time Eastern Cape politician with aspirations for election to the local city council was arrested and charged with rape, his community showed him exactly how it felt about the situation. It overwhelmingly elected him in the recent municipal by-elections.
In the same week a friend related how another politician, who completed a stint in prison a few years ago for fraud, was mobbed by supporters at Cape Town airport. It was not just the few who perhaps knew him personally, but throngs of ordinary people. That politician is now contesting the election too, and I have no doubt that he will make it to Parliament, just like the other convicted criminals at the top of various political parties’ lists submitted to the Independent Electoral Commission.
Given the cult hero status some of our criminally convicted politicians enjoy, it is safe to conclude that most of us, at least, think there is nothing wrong with putting criminals and other questionable people in positions of power.
How does this happen?
First, it is clear that, while most of us knew that we did not want apartheid, we never understood the meaning of the democracy that replaced it. We failed to grasp the deep implications of our vote and the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.
Unlike countries with democracies that have been tested by difficult events over time, ours is very young and has not reached the point where we ask why things went so wrong. That explains why, when the institutions meant to safeguard our democracy and the wellbeing of its people performing their intended functions, they are ignored, altered or removed completely, and most citizens do not make the connection between these actions and their vote at election time.
We have such a poor grasp of the power of the vote that we continually leave it to the judiciary and the fourth estate to hold our political leaders accountable. Our ignorance creates such a huge gap between these institutions and ourselves that we unwittingly isolate them, Âgiving politicians the space to tamper with and intimidate them to the point of ineffectiveness. In such an Âenvironment it is easy for the unfit to rise to prominence, because the very norms and systems meant to weed them out have been rendered ineffective.
Second, we have lost touch with our own traditional values and history, where wisdom and moral standing were the hallmarks of leadership. These have always been essential because, for the most part, leaders are supposed to represent what is good about any society and sometimes make the difficult choices that set their communities on the right path, often at a cost to themselves. We have deluded ourselves into believing that anyone who promises to help the poor is inherently fit to represent us. The barometer we have, at the very least, is the history of those who make this claim, and the benefit of the doubt should always go to those who have never compromised themselves. Because we no longer know our own values, however, we almost always do the opposite. That is why we have a man accused of rape being elected to a city council and convicted fraudsters being so popular they present an unpleasant dilemma for their political parties.
This combination of ignorance about the meaning of democracy and its institutions, and the erosion of the values that keep our traditional institutions and social order intact, is lethal for the long-term survival of our democracy. It is only when the unworthy individuals we undeservedly award the mantle of leadership have failed us to the point of destruction that we will start asking questions about where our country went so wrong. Sadly, by that time, the damage will have been done, a lot of lives altered and the destiny of our country irrevocably changed.
We cannot expect progress and global respect when those we choose to lead us are unburdened by integrity and respect neither us nor the institutions they aspire to lead. As they say, rubbish in — rubbish out. When we finally have had enough of that rubbish, at whatever the cost will be, I hope we will have the humility to link the dots of responsibility all the way past the politicians to the ballot papers we used to vote them into power. It will be our fault, not theirs.
Political leaders are only as good as the aspirations of the voters who elect them. If we are not a corrupt, dishonest society that aspires to inhabit the gutter, then will somebody please tell me why we continue to choose the corrupt and the dishonest to lead us?
Songezo Zibi works for a mining and resources company. He writes in his personal capacity