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We have blood on our hands, ANC’s Mathews Phosa says

There are a lot of words that we use glibly without really thinking about their deeper meaning. We use them so often and so unthinkingly that we forget that they should drive our thoughts, policies and actions, especially if we are elected and appointed in leadership positions as servants of the people. Some of those words are “sustainable”, “coherent” “seamless” and “accountability”. 

I want to look at the last word: “accountability”. In the past week or so we have seen in the aftermath of the former presidents’ arrest, looting, thuggery, arson, death and destruction on a scale we have never witnessed before in this country, and certainly not since our first democratic election in 1994. 

It has shocked the majority of South Africans who pray only for peace, stability and food on their tables. And it has brought together taxi associations, farmers, homeowners and security companies to ensure no further destruction is caused by those who went on the rampage and inflicted damage running into many billions of rands. The events have shown that, when the state fails, white and black people will pick up the baton and protect our beloved country. 

Not only has the mayhem caused domestic concern, shock and outrage, it has also propelled the images of burning factories, large-scale theft and lawlessness onto global television screens and social media platforms. It has caused harm to our international reputation, an injury that will take years to repair. More importantly, it will have a negative effect on investors who spend their hard-earned profits on opportunities in our market. 

Most South Africans are angry, mostly because they have lost assets, feel unsafe and are worried about the future of their children as well as the restrictions the indefensible thuggery has placed on their freedom of movement and their ability to earn an honest living. 

That anger is understandable and rooted in their right to select and trust a government with their safety, their assets and the education of their children. That trust needs to be kept and earned. In this case the relationship of trust between government and its electorate was deeply breached. 

One of the (many) mistakes that our government has made in this process is to underestimate the anger of those who have been so deeply affected. Although calmness in the eye of a storm is necessary, we have not seen the words and actions of our leaders resonate with this anger. 

We cannot — in the middle of shattering, life-changing events such as those of the last few days — look as if we are discussing some insignificant event that can be solved by meeting after meeting of inappropriately named structures that seem powerless, and whose functions we do not understand or feel. 

Good intentions and well-meant statements are often a good thing, but not when people fear for their lives and livelihoods. We want to hear about steps taken, people arrested, people charged and sentenced in courts of law. We have seen precious little of that, especially of the unnamed instigators of all of this. 

My view is that we need tougher legislation on acts like these, actions I regard as treason. I hope that when we finally bring the so-called instigators to book, they will be charged with treason, and that the National Assembly will, without further ado, start drafting new legislation that will criminalise these acts of destruction appropriately.

We simply have not seen any accountability for the lack of action, the lack of leadership, the lack of preparedness and the obvious disconnect with the mood of those who bore the brunt of the illegal theft and thuggery of the past days. Let us be blunt: nothing can wipe away the image of people running out of a mall with television sets, tables, computers, food, and other consumables while the police stand by, powerless or unwilling to intervene. 

Our tragic unpreparedness and inaction is to blame for the bankruptcy of many small and medium-sized businesses, as well as the hesitancy of foreign investors to help us to create jobs and commercial opportunities. It is a kick in the stomach to our efforts to rebuild the economic legacy of apartheid. We have only ourselves to blame for this tragedy. Let us not, again, blame apartheid, the virus, social discontent, or global economic circumstances. This was an event of our own making. We have blood on our hands. 

The serious question now is: Who takes responsibility for the chaos that has descended on our beautiful land? Who resigns in acts of accountability, and who is fired, and who is charged, at the very least with negligence? Who shows that they accept that they should have seen this coming, should have acted sooner, and should have communicated with us in an understandable, sympathetic, and forceful way? 

We have, as I write this, not seen a single senior resignation in either the political or administrative sphere of the intelligence community, the safety and security cluster, or in the justice and prosecuting agency environment. Without fear or favour has become part and parcel of those watchwords that we glibly use at press conferences and boast about because one or two senior decision-makers are in court for alleged crimes unrelated to this stain on our nation. 

It is not enough. It is cowardly and totally indefensible. The lack of accountability will hurt the decision-makers when next people go to the polls and express their views about the many, many promises being made about the fact that this will never, never happen again. 

Are we really living in a constitutional democracy if those who are duly elected to protect us neglect to do so and think that empty words can replace trucks, vehicles, factories, businesses, jobs and safety? It does not seem that those in lofty, safe abodes understand the terrible trauma, both physical and psychological, that has been inflicted on our society. Should elected leaders not take a permanent pay cut to show their sympathy for those so deeply scarred by these events? 

The questions that are rightfully being posed are: Will there be a cabinet reshuffle, will heads roll in the security departments, will our intelligence community be reshaped into one institution with diligent and patriotic leaders? Will we appoint competent non-deployees to these institutions? Will businesses be given the necessary legal insurance and other protections so that they can (again) take risks as entrepreneurs and rebuild their lives and commercial concerns? 

This is not the time for the government to play the long or soft game and hold meeting after meeting. It is time for action, decisive action that shows that they understand that people are scared, angry, hungry, homeless, bankrupt and in need of fearless and selfless leadership. 

The first step to this is to show that those who slept while others saw their life’s work destroyed are held fully accountable. We are in dire need of leaders who lead us through concrete and credible actions and not through television screens. We are a nation on a knife’s edge, pleading and demanding to see people use the power of the positions they were elected or appointed to. 

We, the people, want to see that happen immediately. We deserve that respect. We want to see those who live in the lap of luxury with our tax rands held accountable through deeds, not words. And, of course, the question must be posed when we ask for accountability without fear or favour: Where does the buck stop?

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Mathews Phosa
Dr Mathews Phosa is a former treasurer general of the ANC and former premier of Mpumalanga province. Phosa is one the architects of the party’s step-aside guidelines alongside former president Kgalema Motlanthe. He was also appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa as legal head to chair the party's task team to guide the president, the ANC's political committee as well as the parliamentary ad hoc committee on land reform on the amendment of Section 25 of the constitution, which provides for land expropriation without compensation.

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