With Jacob Zuma’s firing of respected Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, now a fait accompli, social media has erupted with outrage and threats of civil disobedience, protests and court actions from middle-class South Africans, media darlings and NGOs, demanding that ‘enough is enough’. Zuma’s dictatorial behaviour and threats of using populist techniques to stay in power, like land expropriation without compensation, have got the privileged midsection of South African society really nervous this time, and rightfully so. However it seems this section of South Africa has not only a very short memory, but is completely oblivious to the realities of the country they live in. So let’s set the record straight for the willfully ignorant out there.
One of the organisations that is trying to oppose Zuma’s power grab is OUTA (Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse), a civil action group of business associations and individuals that was originally created to oppose SANRAL’s e-tolling of Gauteng’s freeways back in 2012, and which has since reinvented itself as an organisation that wants to challenge the abuse of authority in South Africa. In an unfortunate twist of fate Wayne Duvenage, Chairperson of OUTA, delivered an impassioned plea on April Fool’s Day for all South Africans to get behind civil organisations like OUTA to prevent South Africa’s economy imploding further under Zuma’s reign.
OUTA may be 100% correct in its pronouncements, but the stark reality is that the majority of South Africans are either too uneducated or marginalised to support any protest action. We tend to forget that the vast majority of South Africans do not pay income tax and couldn’t give a hoot about state capture or plundering of tax coffers.
More than 50% of children that start school in South Africa don’t make it to the final school year. The South African educational system produces some of the lowest literacy and numeracy results in the world. This has limited the reference frameworks of a large portion of the population, e.g. the majority of South Africans read zero books per year.
In addition, the protection of anti-constitutional fiefdoms run by unelected chiefs has stripped 16 million rural South Africans of their constitutional rights (women can’t appear in traditional courts etc.). All of these factors have made many South Africans incredibly vulnerable to manipulation by populist politicians.
We have written extensively about the dangers of all the aforementioned but because it doesn’t impinge on the lives of privileged, mostly white South Africans nobody cared. Now that Zuma’s corrupt behaviour is affecting wealthier South Africans in a more direct way than ever before suddenly marches should be organised and civil disobedience campaigns launched.
Just like the sanctions and global opprobrium that led to the 1994 elections it seems that white South Africans only do the right thing when its in their own best interest. Let’s be honest, there were no marches and tax withholding by them when the hospital system in the Eastern Cape collapsed or SADTU was allowed to destroy the futures of millions of children with strikes and corruption.
If you didn’t stand up for others when their rights were being trampled, who will stand up for you when it’s your rights being trampled?
We also tend to forget that we have been here before: rape, Nkandla, Dudu Myeni’s tenure at SAA, SARS implosion, Omar Bashir allowed entry into the country breaking international law, Eskom bungling and corruption, Nhlanhla Nene’s sacking, Gupta use of a military airport breaking national law. And every single time the majority of South Africans via their chosen party, the ANC, made sure that Zuma stayed in power. The municipal elections of last year proved that again despite some loss of urban votes. Don’t forget that he’s been president since 2009.
So let’s be honest, Zuma and his patronage network may be corrupt to the core, but the majority of South Africans still support him, including his cultural outlook (go read up what he has said about women and his support for traditional leaders). Last time we checked that’s called democracy – as ugly as the outcome is in this country.
So in effect what organisations like OUTA are saying is that democracy in South Africa is not working because (a) things are not going the way privileged mostly white South Africans want it to be, and (b) the majority of South Africans are too stupid to vote in their own best interest. Neither of those sentiments are necessarily wrong, but it does raise the difficult question of what to do about it.
Since none of the current outrage has majority support (trust us, most South Africans do not percolate through your rarefied, pseudo-intellectual social media circles), that means operating outside the political process. However, as we’ve seen, constitutional tenets and court judgments are increasingly being ignored or manipulated. In some cases serious charges never even make it to court, courtesy of a deeply compromised National Prosecuting Authority. The judicial recourse that many South Africans cling to as an alternative to parliamentary democracy is not nearly as strong as is commonly perceived.
So what then? Start a civil war? That didn’t work out too well for Syria, Libya or the Ukraine. The alternative is to stop living in denial and admit that a de facto economic apartheid has created two separate South Africas with vastly different priorities. Maybe it’s time to care more about what is happening in marginalised townships and rural areas than your next braai, fancy restaurant dinner or gas guzzling Toyota Fortuner. Otherwise both South Africas will keep on paying the price for our willful ignorance and selfish myopia.