Monday, 18 May 2015

The evil that men boast about & issues of accountabilty

Alistair Sparks’ Verwoerdian slip gives me an opportunity to pick up on the issues of accountability, including accountability for our apartheid past.

Evil people know what they are doing. Indirectly, Sparks draws attention to how intentional and bloody-minded the architects and key implementers of apartheid were.
And so they must be held accountable. They must face judgement; they must be subjected to a process where all is laid bare and clear findings are made about their deeds. Even though ‘tactics of transition’ and political considerations may in the end influence the actual punishment, they must be made to answer in public for the system they imposed.

My take is that Sparks’ action in praising Verwoerd was not an accident. He is clever enough to know what the fallout would be, but I don’t think he could stop himself. He was venting his bitterness or what talk show host Hajra Omarjee called “his hostility towards the ANC”. But in doing so, he became less careful, artful or gaurded about his attitudes and consciousness regarding a thoroughly dehumanising and violent system.

His comments also reflect a general sense of disengagement from black people.

Sparks has done us a favour. He has reminded us that black people – together with ardent democrats and anti-racists from other groups – are sometimes and in some senses on their own. 

In this regard, it cannot be taken for granted that everyone who happens to be liberal understands the depths of apartheid. It cannot be assumed that, at some points, those of liberal bent do not dismiss or miss the utter seriousness of what happened.

This is not about blame. If I were born into a white and 'liberal' context, I would be in the same boat – unless I proactively opened myself to authentic engagement with black people about the pain of racism. It is about taking responsibility for the present; it relates to seeing things as they are and taking responsibility to work for deeper levels of transformation than we have had so far. 

This brings me to the man who is sometimes regarded as the superspook, Niel Barnard and his new book Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss. I again reference Sparks when I say Barnard knew very well and precisely the evil of the apartheid system. He was advisor to the highest decision-makers of the apartheid system, and typically provided the information on which executive decisions regarding repression were based. He played this role in the repressive eighties. This was the period when the Cradock four were killed, when massacres took place, when apartheid assassins roamed at night and when government fuelled the bloodbath between Inkatha and the UDF.

Barnard presents an urbane and sugar-coated view of those times, even as he does concede, when pressed, that he saw the need for a “tough security hand maintaining stability” and the need to “keep the country under control” in those times. As Barnard sees it, he and PW Botha should actually be viewed as the icons of negotiation. He plays up the role that he played in negotiations – it was he rather than De Klerk who was there from the beginning.

The Sparks issue also allows me to refer again to the big men of the old order whose likeness and form are captured in stone or bronze. There are people who would have us believe that the misdeeds of these men can be ascribed to “the times”. In those days, as one caller to a radio station put it, many people were doing it – seizing land, killing off people and treating black people as inferior (a la Cecil John Rhodes). So Rhodes should not be judged by what this caller termed “standards of today”.  

But it isn’t true that those driving colonial domination were innocent or naive. People had choices then as they have now. This is why Olive Schreiner condemned Rhodes. She saw him for what he was, a man who knowingly perpetrated evil in the form of atrocities, enslavement and plunder. A man who built his own power through robbing others of their humanity and their lives.

Considering the numbers of people involved in implementing apartheid’s harsher measures, one can ask: why were so few people made to account via the Truth and Reconciliation process or through the application of the criminal justice system. Why is there so much impunity? Small wonder that, according to a report in The New Age recently, Eugene de Kock once said: “(I) just want other people to be here with me (in prison). I don’t deserve to be outside, they deserve to be here. We all deserve to be here”.

Although I use Alistair Sparks’ comments to advance my concerns about accountability, I concur with those who have expressed disgust at his remarks. I deplore the fact that, of all South Africa’s leaders, Sparks chose to doff his hat to Verwoerd, and that he cites only white people among those he considers clever politicians.

I align myself with columnist Onkgopotse Tabane when he tells Sparks in an open letter: “You probably also have no idea what the fuss is about when people are outraged at the Wits SRC President stating that he admires Hitler for his ‘organisational skills’. Your statement is a version of the same.” 

When liberals are under pressure and forced to surrender their privileges, (for some) a great gulf develops between their liberalism and their actions in the present. Others, thank heaven, find a deeper meaning of true liberalism – one that aligns with the marginalised, one that calls for sharing of the country’s wealth and one that demands redress for historical wrongs.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Year of government since elections: buffeted by crises and lacking a sense of urgency

The government elected in 2014 has faced inordinately tough conditions in its first year. Worse, these conditions come at a time when South Africa's ruling party seems less agile, affected by the sins of incumbency.

This year has been very busy in political terms. The Eskom crisis hit, affecting all South Africans and pushing up the levels of frustration. Government faced an unprecedented situation in Parliament, where new Economic Freedom Fighters disrupted the normal way of doing things and gained significant public support for it.

The economy continued to be afflicted by poor performance. Global factors are largely to blame, but our omissions and mismanagement with respect to Eskom also play a part. As a result of electricity supply problems, one economist cut his GDP growth forecast from 2.9 to 1.9.

Government has also encountered problems in parastatals, generally. The problems at South African Airways do not impact on South Africans broadly (although the costly bailout will affect all in unseen ways). Not so the Post Office (where services broke down due to strike action) and SASSA (where for-profit service providers continue to unlawfully strip money out of bank accounts of grant beneficiaries).   

At the same time, protests of different types continue to flare up. There are the numerous community protests that erupt and die out. There are also student protests and several waves of xenophobic violence. All this upheaval points to an increased demand for redistribution or for more dramatic transformation.

Faced with such challenges, government departments cannot operate at the usual tempo. They have to accelerate on all fronts if government aspires to notions of responsiveness and effective governance.
In several key areas, we see bold ideas and innovation. In relation to both the Department of Cooperative Governance and SALGA, we have seen strong moves to ensure better management and less misuse of government resources in local government. Despite negative responses from many mayors, Pravin Gordhan has put the need for urgent reform at the top of the agenda. SALGA is pressing ahead with key measures. It wants to ensure there are “consequences” for managers and other staff who fail in their duties at local government level. It also wants to see stronger community oversight over key projects.

In health, Aaron Motsoaledi continues to work tirelessly to improve hospital services, to chip away at inequality in the health sector and to lead health promotion campaigns.  

The Gauteng Province also stands out as a government unit that is formulating bold plans to overcome problems of delayed redress. The premier David Makhura launched his programme for revitalising township economics and its Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has unveiled ambitious plans to improve schooling in the province.

Numerous civil servants and government units are continuing to do important work. Daily, hundreds of South Africans get their identity documents and passports in good time (even though the department concerned is sluggish when processing permit applications for migrants and refugees). The Department of Basic Education continues to provide daily learning to over 13 million learners in over 30 000 schools. Without denying the massive infrastructure gaps (many sustained by provincial shortcomings), the national department is pushing programmes to help teachers implement the new curriculum and to face up to shortcomings.

Nonetheless, the surge of disenchantment from unemployed youth, those waiting for RDP homes and those caught between rising costs and modest wage increases means that performing at the same pace is not enough. It means the old level of service delivery, even from good departments, will not be sufficiently recognised. For hundreds of thousands of South Africans – many of them angry – business as usual does not cut it.

And if governance means ‘the capacity to formulate and implement sound policies and systems that reflect the interests of local citizens’, continuing in the current mode translates into deepening of governance problems.

The ANC government has several policy options that it could use to respond to tackle the pressures, but it does not implement them fast enough. For example, government is winding down delivery of RDP houses and is, at least in policy terms, ramping up the provision of rental housing. It has, again and again, vowed to increase beneficiation and has most likely considered making selective use of tariffs to nurture certain economic sectors. In relation to electricity, government has aeons ago talked about facilitating access to equipment that would allow hundreds of thousands to make greater use of solar energy. Government has gained brownie points for reopening the land claims process, but the surge of new applicants will add to backlogs.

Even where there are good ideas that can have transformative impact, implementation is usually far too slow. Often implementation is held up by squabbles between competing interests (the set top box story), by massive costs overruns (building costs for schools in the Eastern Cape), by constant changes in key staff (various departments) and by a widespread and politically-motivated unwillingness to hold functionaries accountable.

During the last year, government has come face to face with major fiscal constraints. Many government programmes are inadequately funded. Many departments and municipalities try to manage this by slowing down delivery and waiting for further funding rounds.

As the ruling party, the ANC’s main challenge is to get ahead of the game. With looming problems in the labour arena, frequent conflict in parliament, an upsurge in xenophobia, ongoing community protests and infighting in the security cluster, it is easy to be constantly distracted. It would be easy, especially with over 60% support in the last national elections, to rely on a few good departments to keep government support up in perception surveys. But a more effective strategy would be to increase the number of bold, transformative initiatives and to push government departments to implement their many good plans with a much greater sense of urgency.