Deepening cynicism greets ANC effort to clear the rot - Businesslive

10 May 2021 - It is hard to imagine the Magashule-Ramaphosa stand-off of last week playing out in Westminster or Washington without it registering as a national crisis, conceivably landing a mortal blow on the incumbent administration. But for us it’s just another week, another episode of little consequence.

Michael Morris

It is hard to imagine the Magashule-Ramaphosa stand-off of last week playing out in Westminster or Washington without it registering as a national crisis, conceivably landing a mortal blow on the incumbent administration. But for us it’s just another week, another episode of little consequence.

The most striking phrase of recent days was that of the financial adviser who referred to ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule’s suspension as “[a] small thing like this” (not warranting especially serious attention as a factor likely to have meaningful economic consequences … unless something significant came of it).

For most South Africans it doesn’t matter any more what the ANC does, because all it does is worsen what is, by its own authorship, already bad enough. The BBC reported on Friday that the governing party’s “tougher code of conduct is being seen as a test of whether the party of Nelson Mandela is serious about ending years of corruption within government”.

It is surely no exaggeration to say that — bar the incorrigibly naive — we are fairly certain of the outcome of this test. That is a shame, certainly to the extent that millions of people suffer the consequences of those “years of corruption within government”, and the likelihood of them continuing.

But it’s a shame for another reason, too — and perhaps a more serious one. With the dawning sense of the sheer scale of the rot comes a deepening cynicism, a way of thinking that is vague, imprecise and essentially uncaring.

The pernicious thing about cynicism is that it can be dressed up to seem rational enough but is at its heart about not caring — not caring enough about one thing or the other to bother choosing between them.

Increasingly, people mistake misgovernance as proof of the failure of democracy itself. Thus, the great change of 1994 is seen as the origin of the manifold errors we now live with, rather than the instrument of their correction. For many, it follows that democratic politics is just plain rotten, written off as a capitulation to inevitable failure, and that all politicians are bad and will fail similarly.

By meandering down this cynical path, too many people only give themselves an excuse to disengage and, by default, contribute to engineering the very downfall they rail against.

Columnist Gareth van Onselen observed in Business Day last week that the greatest ally of the “mediocracy” that has come to define SA in 2021 is “incompetence”.

“In the hierarchy of SA problems,” he writes, “incompetence does not generally feature too highly. That is understandable. Standards are so low we would rather have an honest fool than a corrupt one. That’s the sum most people do, but the truth is the difference is negligible. Both are equally destructive.”

Given that as a society we have excellent instruments in our democratic institutions, the focus must fall on how competently we use them. Here, Van Onselen highlights a “particular contradiction”. 

“SA does have a meaningful opposition,” he notes, which “should be a source of pride, and a bulwark against any Afropessimistic claim that the end is nigh. But we hate the opposition here. Its hallmarks — good and clean governance, even competence on a good day — are dismissed as unimportant. It is often described as the source of Afropessimism rather than the cure. Only SA could produce that particular contradiction.”

SA’s fate lies not in the hands of factional strategists in the governing party, but in the competence of citizens steeling themselves to resist cynicism, and being willing to care.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-05-09-michael-morris-deepening-cynicism-greets-anc-effort-to-clear-the-rot/

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