Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Last Hero

One of the great myths of politics is the value of heroic leaders.

Everyone does it. Police states build up the Great Leader (various variants on fascism and the like each had their own label: Der Füher, El Caudillo, Il Duce). Liberation movements have their icons – Che Guevara and the like, larger than life figures who take on impossible odds.

Now one of the greatest of them is gone – our own Nelson Mandela, Madiba (his clan name), Tata (father – a common Xhosa name for any older male).

Here in South Africa, many wonder how, despite such a great leader to take us into democracy, so much has gone wrong.

A true hero like Mandela was needed to take South Africa out of racial confrontation. A lesser person might have done it, but not with the same finesse and panache. Things like donning a Springbok rugby jersey, when many black South Africans saw rugby as the sport of the enemy, and the Springbok emblem as the logo of exclusion, or treating his former jailers with polite civility do not come naturally to someone who feels entitled to feel a victim.

Mandela’s great achievements mask the fact that in ordinary politics, ordinary people should be able to perform acceptably. The fact that things are breaking in his absence does not mean we need to wait for another hero to arise. In truth, a Mandela is not something we can expect to see again in many lifetimes. He was able strengthen when faced with extreme odds – and very few people can do that.

If our system today is not working, we need to look to the system, not to the character of the leaders. A working system will limit corruption and incompetence. Our system today does not. So we need to think why.

There are two key problems we need to face up to:

  • civic responsibility – our people need to understand that the government is not everything. Ordinary citizens can do a lot without involving government, and can work collectively to improve government
  • political accountability – our electoral system puts too much power in the hands of the party machine, and does not create a clear line of accountability between electoral office and the voter. A pure proportional representation system is good for two reasons: it accurately reflects the relative strengths of the parties, and it makes it easier for small parties to get a foothold. But the fact that the party machine decides where candidates go on the party list creates a big temptation to create a system of patronage within a ruling party – buying influence to raise your position on the party list is a lot easier than corrupting the local party machine to become a local candidate, and further fooling the voters into supporting you once you are revealed to be corrupt
Let’s look at each of these issues in more detail.

Civic Responsibility

Many areas where delivery is failing could be improved by local action. For example, where a school is inadequately maintained, community volunteers with relevant skills could pitch in. In the case of corruption or incompetence, if a particular government service isn’t working as it should, if everyone complained, it would become easier to just do the job than to deal with all the complaints.

Civic responsibility is failing because the majority of our population were strongly discouraged from complaining. During the apartheid years, anyone who complained was treated as a troublemaker, and subject to extreme punishment. In rural areas, banishment was a cruel weapon, involving forced relocation to a distant part of the country with minimal resources. Others were detained without trial for extended periods, killed in cruel ways, or simply disappeared. While leaders continued to fight, and many went into exile, the ordinary person had the culture of resistance beaten out of them.

Add to that one more thing: the civil service the post-apartheid South Africa inherited was not schooled in democratic practice, and a wholesale reskilling exercise didn’t happen. In some parts of the country, unreconstructed homeland administrations were absorbed into provincial governments. Where I live, the Eastern Cape, the provincial government is an untidy mix of the old Cape Province administration and the Ciskei and Transkei, both tin-pot dictatorships, and cadre deployments.

Cadre deployment is one of the ANC’s biggest mistakes – placing its people into public service ahead of competence. Naturally, their unreconstructed police state companions were only too happy to support this new influx that took off pressure from them to actually do useful work.

Fixing the civil service is obviously a worthy project – but waiting for that would require extreme patience. We can do a lot now, and we should not be patient, because those suffering the most are those who have the greatest need.

Political Accountability

The problem with a first-past-the-post system as in the old South Africa, the US and the UK is that it can produce very unfair results. The National Party did not win a majority (of the minority who could vote) for about 20 years after taking power in 1948. It is also very difficult for new parties to break through in that kind of system, because “splitting the vote” becomes an issue. For example, in the US, in the election that Al Gore lost to George W. Bush, some blame the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, whose votes might otherwise have gone to Gore, particularly in Florida where the result was tight. Whether that is true or not, that kind of logic tends to lock a political system into limited choices. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats battle to win for similar reasons.

But in South Africa’s system, though it’s fair, there’s no direct accountability. If a member of parliament is revealed to be corrupt but their party does nothing, you have no direct connection to that member. If you vote against their party, someone else lower on the party list may lose their seat. That is a very indirect path for voters to exercise accountability.

I have suggested previously an option for another way of voting;  there are others. The key requirement is that we maintain as much of the fairness of the current system as possible, as well as the possibility of small parties breaking through, while adding in the missing accountability link to the voter.

Whatever method we choose, it’s about time we started talking about it.

Why now?

With Mandela gone, many people will be more open to change. I am sure he would be open to these ideas too – the existing order has been hiding in his shadow to justify carrying on as before, long after he ceased to have influence.

The ideals he lived for are being lost, and will not return if we wait for another hero. We need to think now about building a system that will work even if politicians and civil servants are not heros, and where the average person does not need to be a hero just to live from day to day – a system that works for a government of ordinary people, for ordinary people.

And finally … 

Hamba kahle, tata. We miss you.