ONE of the disconcerting features of South Africa’s democracy is the growing disconnect between political leadership and the rest of society. The underprivileged, in particular, suffer a severe form of neglect, with underdelivery of services defining their daily existence.
Theirs is an existence marked by the silent violence waged on them by political authorities in the form of indifference and the plundering of public coffers. It is a reality compounded by rising social inequalities and growing unemployment, with no serious leadership or functioning institutions to address their plight.
The only time their situation comes to the attention of politicians is when they take to the streets with violent eruptions on sites like the Marikana killing fields and shapes like the deadly service delivery protests in Khayelitsha. Worryingly, we seem to have reached a cul de sac as a country. There is a colossal leadership void.
The disconnect between political leadership and society is manifest in the growing intensity of service delivery protests. According to a study published by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation last year, the dramatic upsurge of violent protests in various underprivileged communities began in 2009, triggered by corruption, the indifference shown by officials and the lack of service delivery. Communities no longer trust political leaders, and see them as part of the problem rather than the solution. Political leaders treat underprivileged communities with suspicion and disdain. One explanation for this disconnect is that political leadership is seen by those holding office as more about self-preservation, with a short-term horizon, than the pursuit of a worthy and multigenerational vision.
The distance between government leaders and the public has also been widened by a political culture that establishes a hierarchical relationship between the governing elite and the governed in a way that privileges politicians. As such, politicians see themselves as hovering above society, accountable to no one. Even when they visit communities, they create an aura around themselves and are found shielded by a wall of bodyguards and gatekeepers that ensure they remain inaccessible to ordinary people. They can’t even see the writing on the wall: that our sociopolitical framework is disintegrating, with mistrust multiplying.
Political leaders brush away warnings of an impending social revolution over inequality and the deepening strains of unemployment with rhetoric that the quality of life of ordinary citizens has improved in absolute terms since 1994. While this is true, it is the sustained progress and credibility of political leadership that shapes perceptions about the future. For many, it looks grim.
Before the recent revolution in Tunisia, that country had been making progress in reducing social inequalities. Tunisia was counted among Africa’s four most advanced and diversified economies, with impressive educational reforms. However, perceptions of a yawning gap between a small elite and the rest of society abounded. The image of the president and his family living a life of obscene affluence amidst a sea of poverty dealt a violent blow to the underprivileged. They returned it in kind.
It is a easier to manage expectations and perceptions when political leaders conduct themselves responsibly, consistently deliver services and work hard to improve the country’s economy and social structure.
There are a few things that can be done to prevent further damage.
The first is that leaders generate a sense of urgency accompanied by action. It is important, for example, that the government establishes a mechanism for quick response to concerns raised by citizens. Action against officials, including underperforming or corrupt Cabinet ministers, should be taken swiftly to reassure the public. That is how public leadership values are established.
Second, since the mid-1990s the government has devised economic policies that correctly identify our socioeconomic challenges. Now that there is an overarching plan, put together by the National Planning Commission, our leadership should act faster, especially on improving socioeconomic conditions; building capability among citizens to enhance their participation in political life; and building partnerships with business leaders to generate solutions for inclusive development. A sense of purposeful action will be likely to secure the country’s future.
The government needs to develop a sense of responsibility towards its citizens. Such political leadership can direct the efforts of individuals, communities and other critical sectors of society towards positive action. When political leadership is disconnected from society and dispenses with all sense of responsibility, this can blunt faith in the future and weaken self-belief among citizens.
• Qobo teaches politics at the University of Pretoria, and is a member of the Midrand Group.
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