When loyalty to bigwigs means more than fidelity to fairness

The IEC is opening up the candidate registration process following the Constitutional Court judgment which ruled against postponing the election
SECOND CHANCE: The IEC is opening up the candidate registration process following the Constitutional Court judgment which ruled against postponing the election
Image: ALAISTER RUSSELL

Fairness. The word is fast losing all meaning in SA politics. My dictionary defines fairness as “treating people equally or in a way that is right or reasonable.”

You don’t need a law professor to tell you that something stinks in our state of delusion. If a lesser party had missed the deadline for registering its candidates for the election, would the IEC have thrown that minor political entity a lifeline? You know the answer to that question.  

Would an ordinary criminal stuck behind bars be given a “get-out-of-jail card” (also known as medical parole) by the nation’s prison boss after serving only two months of a 15-month sentence? You don’t have to guess the response to that question either.

Would the president come out with a statement for any other inmate and declare that he welcomed this parole decision? You know that the answer to all three questions is a resounding no.

The question that should keep us awake is one of fairness. With this rushed action, it is crystal clear to the public that our government does not treat all citizens fairly. If you are politically connected, you get special treatment, whether as an individual or a party.

I do not want to hear another politician tell us what a great constitution we have.

It is a meaningless document unless the values of the constitution are seen to be upheld when it comes to all of us, big and small alike. That is the real danger in the two events that started the column. They chip away at the rock that is our constitution, making us less sure, and less secure, about the foundations of our young democracy.

Do not be fooled by those comrades with sleek suits and shaven heads strategically deployed across the civil service, including the parole boards of correctional services. These are the people whose behaviour undermines fairness in the system.

Their job is to repay debts and reward loyalties. Party is more important than government, loyalty to big men more than fidelity to the constitution. As we saw recently, the courts are among the strongest institutions of our democracy; those implementing the courts decisions among the weakest.

We have been completely desensitised to the obligation to be fair in the ways in which law and policy deals with all citizens. That is why we tolerate schools with multimillion rand maintenance budgets existing within a short drive from schools without electricity.

It is why the powerful place their children in elite private schools while cutting budgets for staffing in schools that cannot hike tuition fees to pay for replacement teachers.

That this is grossly unfair no longer bothers those in our legislatures even as they extol the virtues of the matric results for the few who successfully run the gauntlet of public schooling.

This week brings us World Literacy Day (Wednesday September 8) and by last count our numbers reflected the gross unfairness of an unequal and unfixed school system. Twenty-seven years since the formal end of apartheid, and 78%  of Grade 4 children cannot read and write at the grade level.

And a report by The Right to Read and Write campaign, released this week, states that at the very slow rate of progress being made, “SA will only achieve universal literacy in 2100”.

The picture is different, of course, for those who attend high quality preschools, on the one hand, and come from resource-rich reading environments at home that include online readers and highly literate parents whose middle-class habits include reading a child to sleep with a book every night.

Nothing has changed in the inequality stakes, even using a basic definition of literacy. The more elevated definition of Unesco would show up the unfairness of unequal schooling even more.

Imagine this: “Literacy means the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” Good luck with that aspirational goal, Mzansi.

Do not, therefore, be misled by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which boldly declare university youth literacy by 2030. These multilateral agencies will simply not learn from past failures such as the Education for All projections.

You cannot announce impossible targets without a defensible theory of action, that is, how exactly a country will get there when its near-illiterate former first citizen spends his time dodging the courts and trying to lay his hands on a medical parole certificate — the way a university student who is likely to fail the upcoming examination looks for a bribable doctor to write a letter declaring him desperately ill.

Yes, the practice of issuing illicit medical clearance certificates is well established in our country.

In other words, were a government’s priorities are consumed by politics — such as staying in power and staying out of prison — the last thing on its mind is caring about something mundane like literacy for all. And that is how unfairness becomes entrenched in our national culture, whether in the schoolhouse or on the parole board.

Understandably, we are exhausted by the never-ending shenanigans of the former president. But we will pay a heavy price for our inattentiveness and inaction because of the corrosive effects of powerful men and their actions on the basic values that underpin our constitutional democracy — such as fairness in school and society.

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