The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng faces its toughest question ahead of the 2024 election. (Delwyn Verasamy)
As South Africa lurches from one crisis to another, the government continues to evade accountability. Two recent incidents, one involving minister of police Bheki Cele and his outburst during a community meeting to discuss crime and ways to circumvent it in Gugulethu, Cape Town, and the other involving minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan and his lash-out through a statement released after his keynote address at the Wits Public School of Governance.
These are not just two isolated events; these tendencies permeate all spheres of government and clearly show the forlorn state of the relationship between the citizenry and the government.
On one hand, there are disgruntled citizens who are fed up with poor governance and incompetence within the ranks of our government. On the other, there are arrogant and out-of-touch officials who either do not know what accountability is or deliberately ignore it.
When the minister of police was confronted by a member of the public, who happened to be a white male, about the appalling crime rate and his failure to address crime in certain hotspots around Cape Town, he thought it was opportune moment to play race politics, saying: “Don’t treat me like a garden boy.” Yelling, “shut up — get out!” This saw him being forcibly removed from a public meeting — leading to most of those at the event, and those who saw a viral video of what transpired, to condemn the poor display of leadership by the police minister.
Crime is one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest, in this country and is on the rise year after year, which gives members of the public a right to be frustrated, and to air those frustrations regardless of race, gender or political orientation. Cele ostensibly went to Cape Town to engage citizens on issue of crime in the area but could not handle the intense scrutiny from the rightfully concerned members of the public.
If it were just an individual Cele problem, we would say it disqualified him from being a public office bearer – some people are now calling for the minister’s resignation. Others insist he should appear before the parliamentary committee on police. But the problem of lack of accountability and incompetence that the country confronts extends beyond the minister of police; it is something that has become endemic in the state, government and the governing ANC. A culture of unaccountability has crept into the ANC and seems to have become entrenched in it, so Cele’s tantrum in Cape Town can be seen through this prism.
A similar thing happened when Gordhan delivered a keynote address on the reform of state-owned enterprises at the Wits Public School of Governance at the university’s centenary celebrations. The event took an interesting turn when some attendees raised their frustrations regarding the poor state of affairs in SOEs and concern that the minister was failing to address them, saying he should resign.
Yet again, instead of addressing the citizens’ concerns, the minister, through the department of public enterprises, later issued a statement, saying the incident was caused by “unruly behaviour by a small clique” who were hell-bent on disrupting the event.
Interestingly, and as Cele did, Gordhan insinuated the people who voiced their concerns about the incompetence around his management of SOEs in general, and Eskom in particular, were racist in their conduct towards him. This is concerning because high-ranking government officials are adopting race-baiting politics to evade accountability, which is even more sad given the racial history of South Africa and the tenuous race relations that continue to exist in the country today.
Of course, the two incidents involving Cele and Gordhan are not isolated or an emergent tendency in the highest echelons of government. In 2014, the current minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, who occupied the same position then, dismissed scathing media reports on the spending of over R200-million of taxpayers’ money on “security upgrades” at the private home of the then president Jacob Zuma, in Nkandla, as “amanga abelungu”, which translates to “white people’s lies”, when the public was calling for accountability.
This highlights that the ANC and its leaders are prepared to trample on the principle of non-racialism, ironically a principle that the party has historically embraced and championed, the moment they have to account to the public for their shortcomings in regard to the workings of government. It is a regrettable state of affairs.
The bottom line is that what has recently transpired is shocking but not surprising, coming from senior members of the ANC government. And it is not just a Cele and Gordhan phenomenon; it has become institutionalised in the ANC. To never account for anything – just deflate, blame something or someone else. So, it was no surprise that when a member of the public, who happened to be white, questioned Cele’s capability to deal with crime challenges in the country, the minister invoked the painful past of “garden boys” and “kitchen girls” to insinuate that the man was racist and that his questioning ought to be dismissed as a racist rant.
It may be relatively true that the concerns put to Cele and Gordhan were not raised in the most appropriate manner but that does not invalidate them. The two departments concerned are in shambles. The vile dismissal of the outraged and frustrated members of the public by the leaders as “unruly”, and telling them that they must “shut up — get out”, is the last thing we want to see in a democratic society, because it reflects arrogance and not leadership. Because while these ministers serve at the pleasure of the president, their ultimate boss is the electorate. The people are the central “bodies” to which they should be accountable.
That is the reason why these very same ministers would go to poor communities during elections, even going to the extent of sleeping in the shacks of poor people to convince them that they understand their challenges and that, if elected, they would tackle these ills. It is a silent recognition that power lies with the people, the public, the electorate. This fact should not be lost on them once elections are over and they are elected to office — they must view it as a necessary and ethical undertaking to account to the public. It is an integral part of democracy, a political system many South Africans cherish.
Dr Siphumelele Duma and Dr Rich Mashimbye are postdoctoral research fellows at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.