Nwabisa Makunga | No room for complacency

Believe me, I get it. After the decade we have had, we desperately needed someone to lift our national mood – a leader to make us believe again in the promise of a better South Africa.

And so when Cyril Ramaphosa lifted his hand in his state of the nation speech and in Hugh Masekela’s words told us: “Send me”, it seemed just right.

Only as you and I know, nothing is ever that simple.

As encouraging as it may be, the sense of euphoria ushered in by Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” will not by itself undo the toxic politics that became our norm in recent years. Here’s an example. One Sunday back in 2013, I interviewed then mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay Zanoxolo Wayile.

The interview itself was about mundane, run-of-the-mill municipal stuff.

I then asked him why he seemed to struggle to get his administration to implement the most basic decisions of council. “It’s politics,” he sighed. What quickly became apparent from that conversation was that the organisational culture of the municipality was such that there were no consequences for wrongdoing.

It is a culture that was allowed, and even actively promoted, to serve political machinations at play at the time.

As is often the case in public institutions throughout the country, there are various reasons for this.

In Wayile’s case the relationship between the mayor and his party had irrevocably broken down.

And so what unfolded in the corridors of City Hall in the many months before he was fired is a textbook case of how to break public institutions and impede greater social development.

On paper the mayor had the power to rein in errant officials.

But in reality the politics of the day had stripped him of that power and opened the flood gates of impunity.

Whether he liked it or not the system was soon flooded with loyal party cohorts who were placed in strategic positions for which they were hopelessly unsuitable.

But because they had the backing of a powerful faction of the party, they became untouchable.

They delegitimised the institution and eroded its capacity to deliver services.

They stole, they lied, they broke the rules and got away with it.

Investigation reports piled up and gathered dust.

The villains scoffed at the very idea of abiding by the law, let alone being held accountable to it. Corruption was normalised. Right or wrong was only a matter of political perspective.
Meanwhile, outside of their rogue bubble of power, the city began to collapse.

It deteriorated socially and economically. The poor were hardest hit. Crime and thuggery soared. Business confidence dropped. Some firms shut their doors. Unemployment and despair rose.

What does this have to do with the current transition? Everything. You see, the social and economic decline of Mandela Bay was a microcosm of a wider South African phenomenon which became our new norm during the Jacob Zuma years.

The granular details and political circumstances may differ from place to place.

But the broader themes are the same throughout the country.

Dig up any bad audit opinion from the auditor-general in recent years, be it of municipalities or government departments, one recurring theme is a lack of consequences for those who do wrong.

It is a systemic culture where errant behaviour was at best passively allowed.

At worst, it was actively encouraged and rewarded to serve political and financial interests of those who held the balance of power at any given time.

The bar was dropped so low and the worst among us were invited to abuse public resources at the expense of our future. What happened last week was significant. But it is only the beginning. The fight to remove Zuma from power was not about one man or the rogues closest to him.

It was a fight against the systemic erosion of the integrity of our state, at all levels, which was legitimised under his leadership.

We, therefore, must appreciate that Ramaphosa’s election is no magic wand.

At best, he offers up an opportunity to raise the bar of expectation and a renewed commitment for our country to be better.

Indeed, his maiden parliamentary speech on Friday was a poignant moment which inspired many to pause and re-imagine a different nation than the one we had become. But it must not entice us into complacency. This is not 1994. We now know better.