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‘We’re bereft of capable, ethical leadership’

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Not only is our liberation history distorted, especially on seminal days like June 16, but our rich liberation investment has returned paltry dividends, save for those who have scavenged it for their own ends.

These shameless ones continue to peddle their self-importance, without any sense of the horrific reality they are responsible for creating for the rest of us. To cap it all, to ask the youth on June 16, “What can you do for your country?” defies the socio-economic wasteland these few have wreaked at our collective expense, and that of the children yet to be born.

Dumbing down education, which has become a conduit for a job, instead of creating meaning in life and enabling the youthful majority to transform this inherited landscape of hopelessness, learnt helplessness and dependency, waiting for something to give. Another July waiting to explode!

The foregrounded factional battles for power become the means and ends to continue pillaging, without consequence, wrought at the cost of our fragile democracy and the majority, in whose name their self-aggrandising actions are perpetrated. A worrying trend that is emerging is that some on the receiving end of deliberate neglect and manufactured poverty hanker after the certainty of apartheid!

Signs of corruption emerged early in our democracy, including the Arms Deal scandal that
mercilessly haunted the presidential terms of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, says the writer. File picture: Peter Andrews/Reuters
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Although we deserve the leadership we get, however mediocre and shocking it might be, we seem stuck with choices that we have not even indirectly contributed to. Let’s be clear that our shambles of an electoral system, dominated by party bosses, is to blame for this sorry state of affairs, where loyalty to the “chief” is paramount.

This flies in the face of the very basis of open, participatory democratic processes that hold leadership accountable. Instead we’re caught in the mire of forced status of leaders on those who – if all were fair, transparent and excellent – we would not give a second glance. Signs of corruption emerged in our second year of democracy, when Bantu Holomisa revealed that Sol Kerzner had donated R2 million to the ANC to void Holomisa’s warrant of arrest issued in the former Transkei.

The ANC denied receiving the donation. Then-president Nelson Mandela acknowledged that he had received the money, and everyone shut up. The Arms Deal scandal followed, mercilessly haunting presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. The National Tender Board was scrapped.

Each province and municipality created their own tender structures. A new growth industry of tenderpreneurs arose – contributing zero to any product or economic growth – with varying degrees of closeness to party-appointed public representatives and civil servants.

This rent-seeker group bids for and secures the highest bribe for work started and left incomplete, for services not provided – failing the expectations of most South Africans whose lot has worsened.

As if things couldn’t get worse, huge borrowings to fight Covid-19 have sweet nothing to show for it, except for a wasted health and education system and the alarming cost of food and basic necessities.

As the independent Scorpions began to sting, they were attacked and ignominiously disbanded, replaced by the effete Hawks. Various commissions, climaxing with Zondo, have squandered hard-earned taxpayers’ money to produce voluminous reports (devastating a forest of trees with paper consumption), while corruption and greed continue almost unabated.

When persons are charged, they manage to garner support in unlikely quarters, and seem to escape their day in court and the fluorescent prison garb that awaits them.

As if that’s not enough, we have a rash of poorly timed actions after the game farm heist/kidnap/money laundering, reducing the gravity of what really afflicts us – damn poor leadership, without an ounce of concern for anyone but themselves.

To add insult to injury, the president signs into law a 3% hike in the salaries of the Cabinet, setting a shocking example to other sectors in the winter of discontent and salary battles. This while the basic income grant is hotly debated and the R350 Covid-19 grant was stopped. It is common for us to deny responsibility for our actions by raising apartheid corruption.

“They got rich, why can’t we?” Apartheid has so impacted our cognition and sense of humanity that it has become the beacon that guides and justifies our nefarious actions.

The exemplar really ought to be the life-and-death liberation Struggle waged for decades, not the vindication for wrongdoing, taking from those in dire need, robbing children of their next meal. Instead, we have the worst among us thrust into leadership, paraded as role models.

Little wonder that most people in our country look at liberation as a swear word, with a dangerously growing sentiment that is allying with colonial conquest and apartheid oppression and exploitation. I recall that in the late 1980s other African graduate students abroad would say of their countries: “People ask when is this independence coming?”

There is little doubt that the abject compromise that led to the changing of the guard 28 years ago, affirming neo-liberal economics, entrenching a failed electoral system, the rampant fiscal robbery for personal benefit, and the inability to transform our education and health systems underpin our quickly failing state.

We have become socialised by a terrible socio-economic political system that perpetuates further distance between the few haves and the many have-nots. Despite the “Thuma Mina” slogan, we’re bereft of capable, committed leadership in almost all sectors, not merely the political.

Ethical leadership died with Nobel Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. If oaths of office are carried through, if business refused to bribe, if those in power acted compassionately, if public role models were credible, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”… Yet we have meaningless sentiment of self-correction, as if a problem can solve itself, and motley factions united to protect their power and ill-gotten gains.

Critical insight is overrun by self-interest and self-survival. Where else in the world, but in Mzansi, would we find thinking people thronging to demonstrate support for those facing criminal charges? Come to think of it, where else would we get media covering the unveiling of a toilet?

The rot has morphed into so many confusing expressions, actively aided by social media. The worst is when even those who don’t support the incumbent asking: “Who else do we have?” This ignores the thousands of bright, informed, energetic young people who have turned away from political processes, seeking respite from the madness to carve out a space for themselves.

The quest for liberation, spawned by the June 16 generation, is what should inspire us all to not fail our future, our children, by finding common cause to save this country from its incapacitated, uncommitted, unconcerned slew of less than average leaders.

The politics that we’ve known has failed us, blighting our democratic intent. It’s time to go beyond narrow sectarian, ethnic, language, gender and special interests. It’s time to come together as fellow human beings on the southern tip of Africa, to save our country.

* Cooper is the 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