Docility: Our society’s quiet calamity

corruption notes 1

If I pay you under the counter will you cook the books? And if you refuse at first, will you do it if I raise the price?


WHERE are the youth protestors, the ‘trouble-makers’ who keep all societies alive? What on earth will it take for South Africans to become so riled up by the corruption revealed in the Zondo and other commissions that they take to the streets with placards, demonstrate outside the commission’s Parktown premises and block off roads outside homes of people implicated for corruption?

Remember the threats by thousands during the anti-apartheid struggle to make the country ‘ungovernable’? It seemed sure that after apartheid’s defeat, protest against injustice was embedded into this country’s DNA. But it appears that docility has won, that the self-indulgence of staring into cellphones for Tweets replaces action.

What a pity. In 2015 – not that long ago – we had the intense #FeesMustFall movement to stop increasing student fees, and the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, symbol of British colonialism, at the University of Cape Town. Whether one agreed with all the actions of the angry protestors or not, what was important was the passion they displayed to correct things.

Why is corruption on the gigantic scale revealed by the Gupta and Agrizzi sagas and the theft of billions in public money designated for poor South Africans, not enough to get the blood of the youth boiling? Is it too abstract, removed from most peoples’ daily lives?

Leaders call for a calm approach, to ‘let the law take its course’. And the ANC, many of whose senior members face corruption allegations, continues deploying them on its campaign trail, including tainted former president Jacob Zuma. The party says they have not been legally convicted, so there is no reason for them not to be its public face.

But most South Africans don’t believe those guilty of corruption will ever suffer any consequences. If they are charged in court, they will drag out the process endlessly, with appeal after appeal, as Zuma did with charges against him.

What if a person has had enough of the charade, and wanted to protest individually, not wait for a movement? While South African and Israeli issues differ, there was an example of such an individual act on Sunday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, when controversial Israeli performance artist and playwright Ariel Bronz chained himself by the neck with a lock and chains to a steel beam that is part of a Holocaust memorial sculpture. He said it was to protest what he called the ‘substandard treatment’ received in Israel by Holocaust survivors, and he was staging an ‘anti-event’ on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He was injured in the process and hospitalised.

What would be the equivalent individual act in South Africa? Would young people be prepared to chain themselves to the wheels of the expensive cars, paid for from the public purse, of corrupt officials who should be working to serve the country rather than driving such cars?

Last Sunday saw a major cricket match at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg. Cars filled the streets and happy cricket fans watched the game as if everything was well in the land. But it’s like a fourth monkey in the proverbial set of three brass monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, respectively. The fourth one neither sees, hears nor speaks: he just gazes smilingly at his cellphone, proclaiming ‘All is well’.

Most people in any society just want get on with their lives, educate their children, pay the rent and so on. It takes something special to get them riled up, a ‘trouble-maker’.  This society badly needs some of those.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


One thought on “Docility: Our society’s quiet calamity

  1. I think you are seeing this from a Eurocentric/American perspective. There are indeed protesting youth in SA – many, many thousands of them – but their form of expression is not tying themselves to expensive cars: instead, it’s siding with the EFF and flocking to an even more dangerous and corrupt leader, if they could only see that, who seduces them with grandiose promises which include uplifting their standard of living. The black youth of SA are sick and tired and disillusioned with the ruling party. They are not interested in symbolic gestures: they are interested in whoever promises them a job, a decent living wage, a better house and a chance to access a decent school or college. That would be Malema. He is an extraordinarily shrewd populist who knows even better than Zuma did how to play the revolutionary, light the match and where to throw it for the most explosive result – and he’s never had more combustible conditions than he has now. We have two generations of kids who have never been taught to evaluate propaganda or discern what they read and hear. That, combined with their long-suppressed rage, is a very frightening recipe.


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