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Vote for your dream to break the shackles of exploitation

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President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, waves to supporters as he arrives for the party’s Siyanqoba Rally at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Saturday, ahead of the countries upcoming national and provincial elections on May 29, 2024. Picture: Phill Magakoe / AFP) / Taken May 25, 2024

By Saths Cooper

After four of us in Standard 8 (today’s Grade 10) were found guilty of placing stink bombs under a teacher’s chair, the principal, Mr KP Naidoo, who had been seconded from the inspectorate of the Education Department to calm the protests at Sastri College – clearly livid – said: “l was going to give you six of the best, but rethought it! Now who’s first?”

I thought: “Oh my god, he’s going to cane us eight strokes!”

When each of the others got four, it was my turn. Mr Naidoo said: “You should know better! When gold rusts, silver has got very little chance; bend!”

That almost incongruous precept, and the consequences of the caning were an abiding lesson that has stayed with and grown in me. If anything, l became more focused on the larger issues, standing up against any indignity that a few bullies who came from wealthy families visited on hapless pupils, while the compliance-oriented vice-principal sought to break the spirit of those who questioned and yearned for embracing difference.

When l was expelled from University College in my second year for opposing the College becoming an ethnic degree-granting institution, the University of Durban-Westville, Inspector Naidoo ensured that l became a substitute teacher so that l “wouldn’t get into more trouble”.

Alas, at the schools l taught at, l spoke loudly in the staff rooms against male teachers taking advantage of female students. A few stopped talking to me. Make no mistake, l was a hot-blooded 19-year-old, facing female teenagers that l would have dated, but not in the same school. I knew then the unequal power relations and exploitation at play. Inspector Naidoo had taught me an indelible and lifelong lesson about being the best you can be without corroding others and eroding your own sense of self.

When l chose to stop studying law, while jailed in Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, two of my three majors – psychology and philosophy – charted a deeper understanding of not straying from ethical decision-making. Steve Biko’s articulation of Black Consciousness engrained a principled approach to all that l undertook.

While l usually find it hard to apologise, l do bow to those who have brighter, sharper intellects, who challenge my notions, and who abound all around us.

Isn’t it a circus when we see the parade of self-serving wannabes having a go at the leaders of the parties who proclaim what they’ve done for and on our behalf? Isn’t it shameful that from the plainly apparent talent we have produced over the past 30 years, we are confronted with the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t, almost denying that both are devils? Bereft of vision, besides the outdated, tired rhetoric and empty promises that they’ve not kept, and are unlikely to in the fastest-growing part of our economy: politics, where the returns are so low and the cost so high!

I’ve been asked often, daily in the period since the election date was announced: Who are you going to vote for? My answer is usually to turn the questions around; cowardly, l know. The existential experience of each of those who confront me will impact how they see this most important election since the dawn of democracy.

I know that many who come from the liberation era will look at Azapo, the ANC (who are third and fourth on the national ballot!) and the PAC, while the liberation dividend has all but been extinguished in the most ardent hearts, becoming accustomed to that which they’ve come to rely on and benefit from since democracy.

In times of crisis, even the direst, some of our smart, often younger, fellow citizens display the creativity that’s been stifled in formal and the old, masquerading as the new status quo.

The biting and striking wit displayed in memes and other social media formats credit that defiant spirit of denuding the high and mighty political class who take themselves so seriously that they forget their own complicity, their own roles in whatever corruption or other saga afflicts us, and becoming new praise singers of the apparent leader, while the heirs apparent, like our nightmares, await their time to show us what self-centred mediocrity they can sell us next.

Like many of you, I’ve had it up to my ears with the petulant, even infantile, one-upmanship, the cheap shots and political point-scoring, the sometimes-violent rhetoric and the spring of promises made that will probably turn into the winter of our discontent.

The temporary compact reached by the key political parties to get the first democratic election under way in April 1994 has patently become permanent.

The beneficiaries of the deficient electoral, parliamentary, provincial and local government systems take it for granted that they will survive, without accountability and any semblance of regular constituency engagement. Most of us have become accustomed to this charade, and feel obliged to acquiesce to that which is so evidently failing us.

Those who’ve become accustomed to the accoutrements of political office, however they got there, are terrified of having an open, honest discussion about our failures; from an education system that has to be a torch-bearer globally for aiming low and perpetuating the colonisation of the mind, when all around us, children and youth thrive and participate in the new economies, refuse to accept being beggars in their land, which is the richest on the continent, with the rich getting richer and the poor are blamed for their lot.

Will it not be a great next administration where those elected at least pretend to be serving us, instead of themselves at our expense? Will we ever get rid of that cornerstone of government: tenders? We then wonder why we have the highest unemployment rate and the lowest employment rate in the world.

Is it too much to expect that those we elect and their families actively participate in the public education, health and social service systems, giving up their massive benefits, such as the numerous medical aid schemes – largely kept alive through public funds – the car allowances (so that we can build a public transport system that any thriving society requires, reduce the carbon footprint, create better air quality and avoid needless traffic jams), reducing their hefty pensions and other perks?

We’re supposed to have an open, transparent democratic system with checks and balances, yet it’s the super wealthy who fund some of the numerous parties and their proxies who make up a large number of the 52 parties who are contesting this election nationally.

Let me end, with another school episode. In the matric exam, the English composition (essay) choice that I wrote on went along the lines, “I awoke, it was a dream”. I wrote on being part of a society where black and white lived together, as equals. I got a D for English, one of my best subjects.

Vote for your dream. Let’s get rid of our nightmares, so that our children are freed from the shackles to which we selfishly bind them.

Prof Saths Cooper is President of the PanAfrican Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, a political prisoner and a member of the 1970s group of activists.