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OPINION: Unless we, the people, hold public officials accountable, the bad guys always win

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The bad guys win, and will continue to win as long as we are taken for granted. As long as we don’t raise our voices in holding public officials accountable, writes Professor Saths Cooper.

File picture: Shayne Robinson

I HAVE not watched a Western movie or television series in a very long time, which I am sure applies to many of you. I am also not a fan of any staged reality series or contests that proliferate on the limited television which we are subjected to in mediocre South Africa.

The harsh reality of SA is enough to shock, thrill, shake and disturb one’s sensibilities, even when things seem to go well for a few days.

Just when one is beginning to be lulled into a wishful state that “alles sal reg kom” [everything will come right], another revelation of outrageous conduct or scandal in our common public space hits us between the eyes.

We may be thankful that what does hit us are not the bullets that fly, or are specifically earmarked for persons who have raised the murderous thoughts of those who resort so easily to hiring assassins to carry out their dirty work. All while the Sheriff and his deputies carry on as if nothing earth-shattering has just occurred right in front of them.

There was a time when Mpumalanga was called the Wild West, but when a sitting councillor in our capital, Tshwane, is gunned down – as happened early this week to sitting ANC councillor Tshepo Motaung and his uncle – we should be very worried. As we know all too well, the jobs of the police, taxi operators and local politicians are amongst the most dangerous in our frighteningly lawless country.

In any other democracy, if even a single local political and taxi assassination were to occur, it would be cause for grave concern and concerted law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to book. In recent cases the minister of police has bruited that he knows who these perpetrators are. If I were one of them, I would ensure that I disappeared, wouldn’t you?

Little wonder then that those behind such murders are hardly brought to book. Shooting one’s mouth off when the shooting of the diminishing number of law-abiding citizens happens is no way to stop the tide of violence that has engulfed us. It merely makes us ignore such mutterings, and accelerates our existing distrust of politicians and public servants.

All too sickeningly, we have become numb to the danger of local government, especially in the run-up to elections. Credible evidence, including those in commissions, gathers dust, while more brigands join the clamour for access to and control of our scarce public purse.

Just this week the taxi industry in the Eastern Cape acknowledged that it had warned all motorists to show proof of identity that they were carrying legitimate family and not any lift club. The taxi barons have shown their strength, with law enforcement totally incapable of doing much beyond claiming they know.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) says that a record 1,482 political parties registered to contest the Local Government Elections (LGE) scheduled to take place on November 1 this year, of which 301 are registered nationally, and will therefore contest in all provinces. We have 278 municipalities, with eight bloated metropolitan governments that are largely money-guzzling, ineffective entities, and 44 similar district councils unto themselves.

Besides the palpable fear of those who are registered to vote caused by the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic, where only 8.5 million – or less than 15% – of our population are fully vaccinated (the global figure is 33.4% totally vaccinated), there is the apprehension of political violence, compounded by an inordinately long list of parties to choose from.

On top of this comes the most important element of direct accountability: individual ward candidates, who are often party representatives, looking for a job in this time of our highest unemployment. When Nkrumah spoke of the importance of the political kingdom, he did not envisage the searing, violent contestation for being on a party list. And, we don’t really get to choose our local Sheriff, who we can look to restoring our faith in participatory democracy, instead of remaining the “voting cattle” that Sobukwe warned against in the late 1950s.

With the current, deeply-flawed proportional representation system, where most of us don’t realise we can actually vote for and stand for local councillor office, we are at the mercy of political bosses and – if ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe is to be believed – thugs and criminals within ANC branches.

Unfortunately, the other parties in government leave us with almost no choice. In most voters eyes, “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t”, which means that well over a thousand of the parties elected will look for burial expenses, blame the IEC, the SABC and one another for their expected paltry showing.

For the country, this will mean much of the same, continuing corruption once in office – despite the strident cries over the next few weeks in the run-up to the LGE – making deals with key parties, even crossing the floor for self-interest instead of what their little parties loudly proclaimed to the communities they canvassed.

Typically, there will be no accountability to the manifestos of the parties. I don’t think that many in our highly-politicised country even bother with this hastily cobbled verbiage that accosts our eardrums if they are aired.

It seems that we are in a Western movie where it may be a new Sheriff, but the plot remains the same. With one significant difference: the bad guys win, and will continue to win as long as we are taken for granted.

As long as we don’t raise our voices in holding public officials accountable. By all means get the signature for the Memorandum of Demands, but keep asking for answers.

If these are not forthcoming, it’s time to use what the political parties do: approach the courts against them. Citizens acting in the common public interest, beyond limited, narrow party politics is the only salvation for SA.

As Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

* Professor Saths Cooper is a former political prisoner who was jailed with late former president Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He was a member of the 1970s group of activists. He is now president of the Pan-African Psychology Union.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA and Independent Media.

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