It is important that we do not set our sights too low as a country. We had enormous potential when we chose a democratic path in 1994 and have had anxiety-inducing ups and downs since then.
We are currently experiencing the greatest levels of democratic vulnerability since the lead-up to 1994. We are desperate for good news. But when you are desperate for good news, it is tempting to lower the bar of what counts as success.
Take, for example, the public’s divided response to how the Democratic Alliance dealt with the debacle around the neocolonial sentiments tweeted by former party leader and current Western Cape Premier Helen Zille.
Some criticise the party for the slap on the wrist that she got. She is no longer going to be part of the party’s main decision-making structures. In turn, she was forced to apologise unreservedly to South Africa, and the deal allows her to stay on as premier until 2019.
There are some, however, who insist that this is brilliant and praiseworthy stuff from DA leader Mmusi Maimane and the party.
I have seen on social media, and heard on various talk shows, the “at least” defence. “At least she is not Jacob Zuma!” “At least she did not steal from the public!” “At least she apologised!” “At least Maimane is more decisive than the ANC!”
If you set your sights low enough, you will never be disappointed. A forced apology is not a heartfelt apology. An apology negotiated in a trade-off for remaining the premier of a province is not an apology that can be regarded as political virtue. It was, and is, simply horse-trading.
The truth is that Zille had written to the party’s federal executive structure, accusing it of anti-white racism and waging a personal vendetta against her. She described Maimane as departing from the DA’s core values, and doubted her party’s ability to give her a fair disciplinary hearing. Maimane, furthermore, admitted in a radio interview with me that Zille had brought the party into disrepute.
So there is nothing morally or politically admirable about her apology. She got off lightly, and the DA simply scored yet another own goal, as it is wont to do. If, however, your yardstick for political leadership is Zuma and the current ANC, then of course Maimane and Zille are doing quite well.
The same goes for other parties and public servants. Resignations are so rare in our country that some are tempted to forget about Ben Ngubane now that he has resigned as Eskom’s board chairperson.
This same man has been implicated in the Eskom mess in numerous ways, including a bizarre post-hoc attempt to rescind the resignation of “Babes weGuptas”, former Eskom boss Brian Molefe.
Ngubane should not be allowed to run away from accountability. He has yet to be held fully accountable for his place in the post-apartheid story of state capture. It is not good enough to say: “At least I resigned!”
Then there is the minister of finance, Malusi Gigaba, who seems to be unable to deal with the now weekly leaks about his connections to the Gupta family. This week we learned that he used his discretionary power as minister of home affairs to grant the Guptas citizenship, despite the director general of his department already having refused them on the basis of the statutory requirements that govern when eligibility for naturalisation happens.
Mercifully, Gigaba is not claiming that the letters in the public space are false. His defence is that what he did was not against law. The law gave him, as home affairs minister, the discretionary power to waive the residency requirements for the Guptas, he maintains.
This, too, is an example of setting the bar woefully low. It has not occurred to Gigaba that not only law matters. Ethics matter too. Apart from the fact that the minister has yet to explain the letter he wrote to the Denel board chair as public enterprises minister, he at any rate seems to think that, unless you break the law, you are doing good work as a public servant.
That is madness. We deserve better. We deserve politicians and public servants who not only comply with the law. We need people in public power who are ethically minded and technically competent. It is not good enough to say: “At least I did not break the law!”
Our democracy is no longer young and not yet old. This means we still have some chance of influencing the political culture as we entrench our democratic norms. One of the norms we can shape is the expectations we have of politicians, political parties and civil servants, who all ultimately serve at our behest.
Sometimes we are outraged by the daily madness in our politics. Every now and then, however, the temptation to lower our expectations, fuelled by a desperate desire for good news, gets the better of us.
Politicians do not do us favours. We do not owe them uncritical loyalty. We are right to ask hard questions about their use of the powers we temporarily lend them.