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WE love a diet of hope. As much as we are capable of being easily depressed about the state of the nation, we are equally capable of instantly being hopeful again.

There are many examples of this dynamic, in both the current news cycle and our reaction to it and in more complex historical examples. But a diet of hope, although it can serve a function, about which we shouldn’t be glib, is never a substitute for truth. Ultimately, the only sustainable way to tackle our most serious and urgent social, economic and political challenges is to anchor our analysis of what is going on in empirical reality rather than in myth-making.

I thought it might be useful to work through a few examples of how the hope motif can be both useful and dangerous for our democracy. For a few weeks now, we have been experiencing blackouts, although we had been guaranteed several years ago that Eskom would be fixed, after the first wave of unprecedented power outages. This time round, out of the blue, the scheduled blackouts escalated from level one to the dreaded level four.

And then the government sent out a press statement telling us that in the forthcoming week no blackouts were ‘anticipated’. South Africans were elated. One media colleague, reporting on the story, even headlined the news report with the words ‘Good news for South Africans’! Suddenly, we are being guaranteed no blackouts for a whole week and, in tandem with that announcement, hope is suddenly in full national swing.

This yearning for hope is part of our national psyche. After we eventually tired of the arrogance of former President Thabo Mbeki, many of us were hopeful that an era of pro-poor governance and responsive and ethical leadership would become the new normal after his dramatic axing from the ANC-led state.

Jacob Zuma, who succeeded him, was not analysed dispassionately by more than a handful of observers, because too many of us were pinning hope on the change in leadership rather than being led by lessons from history and by the contemporary empirical realities that are inherent constraints even on the most well-meaning new person to take over a leadership position.

Consequently, the affable, dancing, laughing Zuma immediately set out to ruin almost our entire state apparatus with the help of his dodgy friends, subverting the Constitution, eating at the trough and doing serious damage to our democratic institutions.

One of many explanations, and no less important for only being part of the whole story, for why state capture happened is that our yearning for good news often results in our critical faculties flying into exile when there appears to be even the smallest chance of a positive change compared with what came before.

And now, of course, we are living through the nightmare of auditing the consequences of trading hope for realism. We watch the Zondo commission recording on live television for us what happened while we were all feeding on a diet of hope and while the Zuma cronies were instead feeding on our public assets.
And now we are doing it again. We are over-investing in President Cyril Ramaphosa. We are again desperate for hope and making all sorts of excuses for the signs of continuities with the past. Ramaphosa keeps constitutional delinquents like Bathabile Dlamini in his Cabinet and how do we respond?
“Ag, shame, man, it is complicated! Timing is everything in politics. And, like, he is waiting till after the elections before he makes his moves!” We engage in confirmation bias in order to avoid any deflation of misplaced hope.

With the ANC’s elections list, we again had an opportunity to get a grip on reality. Ramaphosa, just like presidents before him, is not bigger than the ANC, and not bigger than the ANC’s recent institutional, leadership and political cultural sins. The list of names being seconded to the next Parliament as ANC representatives may as well have been drawn up by Zuma himself.

What do the hopeful say? “No, man, don’t despair! The criminals will be smoked out. The brand- new National Prosecuting Authority will get the lot convicted and then it will be easier for the party leadership, including Ramaphosa, to exclude the rotten apples from Parliament and from the Executive.”

But there is a problem with this logic. Sure, it is a decent explanation of how the ANC works. But this explanation of the internal machinations of the party misses the truth that the effect is that the democratic project in the state suffers. Why the hell must citizens lower their expectations of leadership excellence in Parliament, in Cabinet and within the state just on account of the complexities of the ANC’s internal dynamics?

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