We need to rethink how we relate to politicians. Too many political leaders, here and across the world, behave as if they do us a favour by running for office. Citizens are treated as subjects rather than as employers of these politicians when it is these very politicians who, in fact, should feel nervous about letting down the voters at whose behest they are serving.
This thought struck me recently as I grappled with two related questions. How do we animate the rule of law? And how do we deepen our impoverished culture of accountability, in our politics and society at large? I want to focus here on a specific but narrow aspect of these larger two questions.
It seems to me that publicly elected officials, and their political parties, act with impunity in part because of how we, as citizens, relate to them. We are not directly responsible for the illegal activities and unethical behaviour of those in power. We should take responsibility, however, for that which is under our control, such as the ways in which we relate to people in positions of power.
Occasionally we express annoyance with the symbolism and trappings of public power, but we seldom think through the importance of converting such momentary irritations into serious, sustained critiques of those symbols, and a demand that they be dismantled.
Take an example. Now and then you might read an angry letter in a newspaper, or hear trenchant criticism on talk radio, about South African politicians who abuse the blue light brigade system that allows them to drive from one part of the city to another without having to journey slowly on roads that are jammed. This suggests that politicians are very special, and we are less important than they are.
Take yet another example. When people in power enter certain spaces, we defer to their nominal titles and political power. I am obviously not suggesting that you treat politicians with disrespect. We all have inherent dignity. My beef is that we do more than just treating politicians decently. We treat them as if they are earthly representatives of our favourite deity. We elevate them to a status they are presumed to have, and even deserve, solely by virtue of being in political power. We have naturalised this deference to political power across time and place to such an extent that the danger of what I am describing here might itself feel like an overreaching gripe about the place of politics in our lives.
However, there is surely a link between our enduring culture of impunity, and lack of accountability, and this misplaced, uncritical respect for political parties and elected officials? It is hard to hold someone easily, habitually and fully accountable — legally, politically and morally — if you are not also in the habit of seeing them as ordinary, as merely human rather than as special. Which is why thinkers across many academic and intellectual disciplines have grappled for such a long time with how and why it is that we often act against our collective self-interest as citizens, and as voters.
This is how theories and ideologies such as an appeal to the idea of false consciousness become tempting. Across different class strata we collectively internalise a set of false beliefs about our structural position in an unjust society and do so, invariably, to the benefit of the rich and powerful.
There are complexities here awaiting full elucidation elsewhere. The present point is that many of our ways of relating to powerful political elite do not serve our interests, and this imprudence sometimes starts with uncritical deference to political titles, perks and symbols.
As someone working in media, I am often confronted by sudden changes in relationship between two human beings. Yesterday, someone was simply an ordinary member of, say, the governing party. Today, it was announced that he is now, for the first time, a Cabinet minister. Yesterday, you addressed him as “Ronald”. Today, you address him as “minister”. Yesterday, he was simply visiting a prison doing good, with no media following him. Today, he has an army of bodyguards, communications staff, support staff and a choir of journalists capturing him eating a sandwich in prison. In one moment of being sworn is as a Cabinet minister, he has gone from a marginal politician running a law firm to the centre of the political stage, elevated slightly above the sunken theatre seats below. This is how political power can transmogrify ordinary beings into comical characters fit for a Monty Python sketch.
Titles aren’t inherently problematic. And some politicians dig deep once the burden of a title is bestowed on them. That kind of commitment to selfless public service is becoming all too rare though. And so this is where we all need to be vigilant about the danger of titles.
Let’s be honest. For some citizens, and even for some of us as journalists (and there are always exceptions), it is easier to tell “Ronald”, say, what you truly think of his actions and views than it is to tell “Justice Minister Ronald Lamola” what you think. In other words, your critical faculties might fly into exile when you engage someone through their title as opposed to focusing on the content of their speech, and actions. I am not saying we should do away with titles (although that would be an interesting debate), but that we should be aware, as citizens, of the dangers of treating publicly elected officials as extraordinary. You are ordinary even as a minister.
If we do not think of politicians as ordinary, we perpetuate the idea of a vertical power relationship between them and ourselves. The relationship we should insist on is a horizontal one. And, if the relationship must be unequal, then the greater amount of power should be vested in citizens because we are the ones doing the hiring and firing, and the politicians should have the requisite humility — so desperately absent from our political culture — to respect the legitimacy of citizens to hold them accountable. That, sadly, is not our present reality, which is why the rule of law isn’t entrenched in our society, nor is the normative value of accountability safely ensconced in our body politic either.
It is, therefore, important that we begin to think about how to insist on political humility. That is not the same as humiliating politicians. It does mean, however, that a Donald Trump or a Boris Johnson should, through the insistence of citizens in their countries (including ones who share their political world views), understand that lying or unethical leadership won’t be tolerated. It should mean making it clear to a governing ANC, this side of the world, that there is no entitlement to govern in perpetuity.
It means, too, insisting that opposition parties demonstrate an ability to offer an alternative kind of servant leadership that is demonstrably different to the status quo before they are elected, as a substitute for simply condescending to voters who do not yet vote for them.
At the core of these examples is one simple idea: we, the voters, must revisit the long and global history of politics and politicians who have subverted the collective power of ordinary citizens to feed their gigantic egos, thinking they are a gift to humankind. We need to insist on the political cultural shifts that we want to see and which we deserve to see — a shift away from deference to political power towards political agency inhering in society at large.