Between hope and despair
The impact of electioneering on our widening trust deficit.
Within hours of the new incoming SARS commissioner, Edward Kieswetter introducing himself as a “people’s person”, his organisation announced that there would be no reprieve for late submission by the many taxpayers affected by the service’s striking workers. While Kieswetter takes over only on May 1, the contradiction could not have escaped those beleaguered tax-payers frustrated again by poor service delivery. The strike is over and the ultimate impact on those affected probably minimal; but the memory of another let down in service will linger.
In similar vein, was Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s rebuke of Sanral for allowing a stay of e-toll prosecutions. The minister seems determined to paint himself as a technocrat rather than a politician – an extremely difficult task in an election time. But apart from frustrating the ruling party’s electioneering, the “user-pays” argument is a moot one when the income also has to subsidise “non-users”. Then it becomes a tax – and in the case of e-tolls, not a very efficient one. In addition, the absence of competition and the prevalence of corruption, invariably lead to the abuse of the “user-pays” system – as we have seen with Eskom.
The above are just a few of the latest anecdotal snippets of how the social climate changes and becomes warped by electioneering. Despite its laudable goals, electioneering more often than not brings out the worst of the worst – especially in politicians. The harm comes in three categories: perceptions, polarisation and expectations.
Electioneering rhetoric, hyperbole and hysteria fuels obfuscation, division and confusion – compounded significantly by social media fake postings to the extent of the I.E.C. establishing a panel to monitor them. Problems are starkly highlighted and solutions disbelieved. It plunges the country into a division between optimism and pessimism; between hope and despair. Small wonder that ratings agency, Moody’s took the easy way out a few days ago, in simply not giving a rating at this time. It was widely expected that it would downgrade the country to a negative from stable outlook, if not to junk status.
Another example was the populist pronouncement by President Ramaphosa on nationalisation of the Reserve Bank. In normal times, it would have received scant attention as inconsequential; but in election times, and against the heated debate around land expropriation without compensation, it had some impact on the Rand, and triggered some debate about how far the country would go in confiscating resources from private ownership. The electioneering process is no doubt going to further escalate capital outflows and depress business and consumer confidence. It is simply about perceptions already darkened by load shedding, commissions exposing deep and widespread corruption, civil unrest and high crime levels.
South Africans are polarised as never before. Those of us who took part in the first democratic elections can remember well the mood of optimism, cohesion and hope in an election based primarily on reconciliation. Now, we are polarised on many fronts: primarily on race and culture, but also on class, between generations, and on gender issues. Even within parties themselves, there are divisions and squabbling between factions. Unlike perceptions, polarisation is extremely difficult to reverse. It lingers and festers.
What the country needed the least was for the Human Rights Commission to deliver a puzzling exoneration of Julius Malema’s racist rants as “hate speech”, while still deeming them to be offensive and unacceptable. To a rational mind there should be no difference, and it shows the extremely difficult and tricky path we are going to follow in regulating what people can and cannot say. It becomes even more difficult when the regulations are vague and tailored to suit intent and context. Laws are never that flexible, and the only real answer is for society as a whole to be repulsed by such utterances and show their displeasure in the moment. Making racial insults a measured and deliberate part of electioneering is reckless, inflammatory and a threat to democracy itself.
All around us we witness daily, communities in protest and civil unrest. We have become known as the “protest capital of the world”, and IPSOS expects them to increase as we approach Election Day. In the majority of cases, protests are fuelled not only by authorities failing to keep promises, but on politicians who made these promises in the first place. Promises create expectations, and discontent is fuelled by the gap between these expectations and the reality people experience. The bigger the gap, the greater the discontent. That adds to the trust deficit; which has become far more significant to our economic well-being than the budget and trade deficits.
Conversely, when expectations are lower than reality, it creates a sense of well-being and contentment. That utopian condition is never sustainable, because reality itself will lift expectations. But the real danger lies in both expectations and reality being low. That creates a deep and profound sense of hopelessness and disillusionment.
One of the world’s greatest contemporary thought leaders, Noam Chomsky, has observed in his book Requiem for the American Dream that while this generation is most likely better off than those of the past, it lacks what all its predecessors had: a deep faith that the future will be better. The only way one can rescue a society out of a state of hopelessness brought on by low expectations and a low reality, is to have high aspirations – that attribute that drives innovation and a willingness to make things better. That in turn demands inspirational leadership: not one that makes promises, but one than can engage the nation to aspire to greater things.
It is easy to inflame, but more difficult to inspire. The former is the mark of the politician; the latter the mark of the true leader. Without aspirations, hopelessness becomes despair, and despair stirs violence and revolution.