South Africa, be cautious when you romanticise the liberator

MandelaMadonsela

Heroes who liberate a country: Will they always do the right thing? Nelson Mandela allowed serious errors in SA’s new democratic constitution, says Madonsela

GIVEN former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s hero-status for exposing state capture under President Jacob Zuma’s government, and her determination to get South Africa back on track – to “re-anchor” it – it was interesting to hear her criticise the visionary who contributed more than anyone else in bringing about non-racial democracy – Nelson Mandela. Not for malice, but naiveté.

Addressing a conference in Sandton on Sunday, she said Mandela had erred by not sufficiently empowering the people in the new constitution adopted in 1996. Its framers gave excessive power to public officials and too little directly to the people. For this, the country had paid dearly as officials from the president down, ran amok with their power, with little regard for the law and the people.

South Africa is admired for adopting, after the first democratic election in 1994, one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. But, said Madonsela, the country believed naively at the time that because of this, and the fact that illustrious struggle heroes – such as Mandela – would occupy major power positions, the spirit and letter of the constitution would be rigorously implemented, creating a better country.

For example, economic growth and redistribution would be actively pursued – crucial to reducing inequality. But instead, misguided government policies with devious agendas and mismanagement, and state capture by powerful private interests, created almost no growth. Overall unemployment was around 30 per cent and youth unemployment 50 per cent, while billions of rands was illicitly laundered through Dubai by officials and private families – the Guptas, although she avoided naming them – with government connections. Some R240m of public funds was used to upgrade President Zuma’s private home.

Contrary to the constitution’s intentions, Zuma and his cronies have abused their powers, rather than being guardians of the people’s interests. Self-enriching guzzlers feeding at the public trough. In many cases, people have watched helplessly as the country slides downwards, while officials appointed by party bosses perform abysmally, yet can only be removed by voting the governing party out at the next election, which takes place every five years.

It is an oft-repeated historical theme that when liberation fighters defeat former despots, they often become as bad as them, while ordinary people remain poor and powerless. Apartheid itself was created by Afrikaners fighting for liberation from English dominance; they then went on to become harsh rulers in their own repressive regime. The rise and rise of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is another case.

During the decades of apartheid rule, vibrant civil society organisations and individuals rose up to defeat the racial system. After 1996, however, in the euphoria of the new democracy, it was believed the constitution would ensure protection of people’s rights. In many cases the opposite has happened, because of despotic officials and the people’s insufficient say in how institutions and officials operate.

Speaking of her own office when she was public protector – one of several “Chapter Nine” institutions created by the constitution to protect democracy – her initial vision was to be the “voice of the people” to protect them from abuse by officials. But during her tenure, the concept changed to the public protector being more of an “enabler” for helping people speak with each other when necessary – ordinary people and officials.

One case where this had succeeded, she described, was where residents in a rural area who performed work for the government weren’t paid; instead of confronting the usual bureaucratic channels, she brought these people together in a room with officials familiar with the place the complainants came from, so they could explain the situation; the matter was settled.

The lesson of the crisis of South Africa today is to beware of romanticising liberation struggle heroes. Not to believe they are saints, incapable of erring. The chaos and corruption in the ANC – the once revered liberation movement – is enough proof. But even icons like Mandela should be treated with a healthy dollop of caution.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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