Public servants are paid extraordinarily well in our country. We the people have a right to demand performance from all of them, writes Mamphela Ramphele.
“Liberty needs the state and the laws. But it is not given by the state or the elites who control it. It is taken by regular people, by society. Society needs to control the state so that it protects and promotes people’s liberty rather than quashing it. ….. Liberty needs a mobilized society that participates in politics, protests when necessary, and votes the government out of power when it can.” These are the conclusions of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the authors of The Narrow Corridor: State, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.
I visited Ginsberg, in King Williams Town, to lay Stephen Bantu Biko’s sister, Nobandile Biko to rest. The contrast between the towering Steve Biko Centre at the entrance of the township and the squalor around it, could not be starker. We were greeted by litter, litter, litter everywhere, and yet there are thousands of young people in King Williams Town municipality who are milling around aimlessly with no jobs nor a viable path to sustainable livelihoods. Why are these young people not being trained to become sanitation technicians to manage waste and sustain cleanliness in our towns and townships?
The Buffalo River that meanders past this squalor, is choking from pollution. Instead of the river being a live stream teeming with frogs, insects and other water species, it is dead. No birds song nor flowers. Attractive park facilities could be established on its banks where children play and adults meet for coffee or picnic lunch. In addition, the township has no pavements and the few streets that exist are barely passable.
Why has this neglect come to characterise the ANC government since 1994? The simple answer is that for freedom to have any meaning and be sustained over the long term, we need a strong capable state held to account by a strong mobilised civil society. We the people have dropped the ball since winning our freedom through a coalition of mobilised ordinary citizens, trade unions, students, faith communities and some private sector actors. We handed over our liberty by declaring that we were liberated by the ANC, and thereby discounted our contribution alongside that of the ANC in bringing about the transition to democracy in 1994.
Discounting our power to take control of our liberty has disempowered large segments of society and turned them into supplicants to elites who should be serving them as fellow citizens. Society needs to control the state so that it protects and promotes people’s liberty rather than quashing it as we have seen in much of post-colonial Africa. Zimbabwe and Angola are tragic poster children of abuse of power.
Our failure to mobilise enables state capture
Our failure to remain mobilised in order to control the state and the elites who are in public service and their allies in organised labour and the private sector is the key enabler of state capture. Our passivity in the face of abuse of power and neglect of provision of basic services, has given permission for the hijacking of state resources to fund those in power and their political machineries to perpetuate their dominance over the majority of citizens.
We are today witnessing the very same organised labour entities and their leaders who ignored all signals to install Jacob Zuma as president, now threatening to shut down the aviation industry if they do not get what they want. The SAA was looted by the tsunami they imposed upon us; they must now accept the consequences of their actions those many years ago. We the people have to put pressure on the government of the day to act firmly to protect our assets in SAA and other SOEs and to not pander to those intent on a zero-sum game of power relationships.
It is also time for ordinary citizens who are bearing the brunt of the impact of state capture on basic services to mobilise themselves as we did so many decades ago. They must demand efficient and effective basic service provision by local, provincial and national government. Freedom cannot be given, it has to be taken by those wanting restoration of their dignity and protection of the common resources to sustain us and the environment we live in for future generations. We have enough skilled young energetic citizens to occupy the key positions in our public service to build a strong capable state. What is missing is the political will.
Lawlessness must not be tolerated
Political will does not come from a benevolent government. Political will results from a government held to account by a strong civil society. We have to learn to work together as citizens of this country in coalitions based on shared values of Ubuntu and bound together by a human rights culture that respects people because they are human irrespective of their status in society. We must demand a strong state that does not tolerate lawlessness under any guise.
Public servants are paid extraordinarily well in our country. We the people have a right to demand performance from all of them. Starting at the local level where no councillor, even part-timers are paid less than R250 000 per annum plus benefits. Their negligence of their duties is a reflection of their lack of respect for those whom they should serve. They have learnt that there are no consequences for non-performance. The power to institute consequence management is in the hands of each of us. Why do you vote for non-performing councillors or the parties that installed them and then in turn burn and destroy public assets?
Freedom comes with responsibilities. We all have the responsibility to build a strong capable state to ensure efficient and effective basic public goods and services. We also must insist on government taking decisive action to engage in conversations with the help of science and technology experts to develop a credible master plan to ensure that our country and SADC region emerge from the climate emergency that is upon us.
Floods, tornados, droughts and fires are not acts of God as some uninformed public servants have been saying over the last few months. Climate change is the result of our failure as human beings to respect the earth mother that has given us the sustenance that is essential to life as we know it. Our abuse of life sustaining resources in the name of development, has to stop. Our children and their grandchildren demand that we stop borrowing from their entitlements to clean fresh air, clean water and fertile soils, to feed our insatiable unsustainable lifestyles. The current way of life can only lead to greater and deeper emergencies.
We need to work together to shape a new way of living in harmony with one another within a sustainable biosphere. We have the knowledge, the technological capabilities and a young energetic innovative population to shape a new way of providing public goods and services including the critical social and physical infrastructure to emerge out of the current climate emergencies. The freedom we are enjoying today cannot be sustained if it is not buttressed by a strong capable state and a strong mobilised society.
We owe it to future generations to do the right thing to secure their future. It is in the hands of each of us to do what freedom demands of us.
– Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA and co-president of the Club of Rome.
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