Monday, September 21, 2009

Wanted: Lessons in what's possible -- contact Luthuli House

By Llewellyn Kriel


Working as I do now with NGOs in addressing the unsexy and shamefully underfunded social crises of addiction and mental illness has made me steadily more painfully aware that most of what really troubles this magnificent country is its warped political regime.

Just as physicists, astronomers, molecular biologists, mathematicians and the greatest minds in the world discover more and more bizarre and jaw-dropping new things in the macroverse and microverse, they are realising that fundamental laws of science remain incontrovertible and more sound than ever.

Of course, they still battle to reconcile things that are mathematically proven, but have yet to be evidenced in other ways — string theory, the Higgs boson, how energy is converted into matter, the existence of worm holes, anti-matter and so on. But for now gravity and electro-magnetism are the forces, the speed of light is absolute, and time and space remain doggedly linear. And if the Unstoppable Force hits the Immovable Object, the entire scientific world has to shrug its collective shoulders and admit that either the force must stop or the object must move.

Scientists understand that certain things in the universe are irreconcilable and that forcing them together or into an unnatural state will, inevitably, result in catastrophe. Nature abhors a vacuum, gases will not remain liquids at normal temperatures, like poles of magnets repel (even if wrapped in Velcro) and what goes up must come down — to put it very simplistically.

These are accepted — at least for now — and science gets on with the job at hand because banging your head against a brick wall is pointless, wasteful, stupid and gives you a dirty great pain in the brain.

Not so politicians. In one of the most thought-provoking and enlightened articles on the vexing race question, Wits professor and author David Everatt wrote that “nonracialism (as so proudly and misguidedly espoused by South Africa’s rulers) is incompatible with African nationalism”.

Everatt’s analysis exquisitely outlines the way the African National Congress has unwittingly painted itself into a corner of which it is the very architect and builder. In tracing the history of the ANC along its higgledy-piggledy path, bouncing wildly like a ball in a never ending pinball game, always deftly five steps behind current reality, one cannot help but agree with Everatt (ironically a member of the quaintly Victorian-sounding Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a partnership between Wits and the Gauteng provincial government — the ANC
in loco parentis).

“History has blinkered the ANC and its allies as to what really can be done with our multicultural, multilingual, multiclass, multihued, multivalued nation,” he wrote in The Weekender (12 Sept. 2009).

This wilful blindness has shown itself most visibly in the ham-fisted handling of — “groping about” would be a more appropriate description — the spate of recent issues which the ANC with predictable clumsiness turned into ugly and undignified racist food-fights.

Working as I do now with NGOs in addressing the unsexy and shamefully underfunded social crises of addiction and mental illness has made me steadily more painfully aware that most of what really troubles this magnificent country is its warped political regime. Along with other social critics, I am frequently berated with the childish riposte: “Stop complaining. If you don’t like it, do something to change it”. Jonathan Swift, author of
Gulliver’s Tales, would have laughed uproariously at this silliness. And history all the way back to the Old Testament prophets would have joined in. We critics, columnists and bloggers certainly do, even if the uneducated heckling hurts.

The anachronistic idiocy of proportional representation means that whichever party wins an election always has within its grasp a majority that gives it the levels of power the ANC now wields. Only the moral fibre of the victor stands between it and dictatorship.

And everyone knows that political power and moral rectitude are uncomfortable bed-mates. The checks and balances — Parliament, the judiciary, incestuous oversight committees, transparency and public accountability — that are supposed to keep the majority party in line have proven themselves woefully inadequate over the past 15 years.

The tragedy of majoritarianism applies equally to any other party, but the realities of SA’s past have made the ANC the tote favourite. Not even the schism that led to the formation of Cope or the obvious popular rejection of the out-of-step ANC in the Western Cape have made as serious dents in the thick-skinned carapace of the ANC as many hoped. It’s only that the size of its majority has dropped slightly, and this year it has shown ominous signs that it plans to use whatever majority it can extort to its own ends without remorse or magnanimity.

Luthuli House’s gaggle of institutionalised self-interest has only shown isolated barely perceptible nods in the direction of noble or moral stewardship. The welfare of the ANC and, by obvious self-righteous extension, its members, remains the lodestar. This has drawn to it people who crave self-aggrandisement, status (such as million-rand Beemers), power and unquestioning public adulation. These people more closely resemble addicts than they care to admit. They would be wretchedly comical were they not so inherently dangerous.

This is the paradox that underpins why in its 15 years of being a virtual one-party state, South Africa has done so extraordinarily well in some spheres and failed so abysmally in others. It is as irresponsible as it is asinine to suggest the ruling party (which has yet to learn to be a serving government) and the nation as a collective are two separate entities.

As it goes with the ANC, so it goes with South Africa.

And within the ANC’s “DNA” lie the seeds of its own downfall — trying to force irreconcilable opposites into the same space. Trying to meld nonracialism and nationalism is like forcing the same poles of a magnet together. The same goes for trying to force religious and atheistic values on each other, or artificially bonding true, pure democracy with rigid hierarchical centrism. This is the age-old philosophical conundrum of the unstoppable force hitting the immovable object.

And the tragedy is that the ANC seems impotent to face up to its own shortcomings. While it flounders about hoping the paint in the corner dries before it has to pee, the party drags the nation around offering paper promises instead of delivery, distracting the impoverished with jolly free-for-all parties which they attend in multimillion-rand cavalcades and shouting “racism” (or any other convenient –ism) to mask the real issues affecting our lives.

It strikes me as very bizarre that finance minister Pravin Gordhan can act at all surprised that billions have been pissed down the drain of self-enrichment, corruption and hedonism while he was raking in the tax bucks for the ANC. Everybody else saw it on the grand scale of Zumaism and Yengeniism down through all the layers and layers of pathetically managed government “strukshas” to microscale of back-of-beyond municipalities.

Along with the rest of the country, I welcome Gordhan’s epiphany and the nascent indications that even Beloved Leader might be seeing the light. May it be mightily fruitful!

But in the meantime, the great aching social needs, symbolised in the tragic game of catch-up being played to address the HIV-Aids scourge, but far worse in the criminally neglected fields of mental health, addiction awareness and real education continue to howl their lonely need to the deaf heavens of government.

It falls then increasingly to the private sector and individual communities to find pragmatic solutions to the problems shaping their daily lives. In doing so they can only concentrate on their own isolated issues. They can, in the idiom of both addiction and psychiatry, only take baby steps, one at a time.

It has been common knowledge for the past decade that the mega-philanthropic foundations of the world — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxfam, the Red Cross and any number of private institutions from Prince Harry to Bob Geldof and Oprah Winfrey — refuse point-blank to allow their funding to be channelled through the South African government. For the simple reason that they trust them as little as they trust the governments of Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad and the DRC, the top five in the Global Failed States Index. What funds do get channelled via “official” routes come from the IMF, World Bank and United Nations, their motives more in line with diplomacy than altruism.

One can only hope that the common sense of the likes of Gordhan and Trevor Manuel can prevail over the rank lunacy of Gwede Mantashe and Blade Nzimande. It would make eminently grander sense to spend our tax rands on improving the lives of 49-million ordinary South Africans than on flashy cars and profligate public posturing of a handful of party apparatchik.

That would, in turn, demand imagination — which brings us back full circle hunting the Loch Ness monster and pitting the Unstoppable Force against the Immovable Object.

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