NEWS & ANALYSIS

ANC’s mantra of collective irresponsibility

William Saunderson-Meyer says simply blaming Jan van Riebeek no longer cuts it

JAUNDICED EYE

As popular idiom has it, “success had many fathers, failure is an orphan”.

Or, as some popular idiots would have it, South Africans must take “collective responsibility” for the failures of their leaders. That’s the latest refrain from within President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration, presumably because blaming everything on apartheid is beginning to wear thin after a quarter century of misguided African National Congress governance.

The ANC has for a while been casting about for a more persuasive target than the 1652 arrival of Jan van Riebeek. It seems that the preferred solution is now to spread the blame more evenly and more widely than just targeting whities. Niftiest of all, if it works, is that it would mean ordinary citizens would voluntarily be taking on the crippling weight that their leaders are shrugging off.

Fikile Mbalula, once he of freebie first-class junkets to exotic destinations notoriety as sports minister during the Zuma years, in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet holds the decidedly less glamorous job of transport minister. Mbalula — who variously styles himself on social media as Mr Fix, Mr FearFuckAll and Razzmatazz, while churning out a daily stream of selfies — is very keen on collective guilt, um, responsibility.

One of the burdens that Mbalula would like to shed is culpability for the failure of his department to control the minibus taxi industry, which features disproportionately in serious traffic accidents and disports itself with lawless impunity. Last week, outlining what’s to be done about the festive season’s road accident carnage, Mbalula explained, “We must all appreciate that safety on our roads is a collective responsibility that we must all shoulder.”

No doubt already feeling wonderfully lighter, Mr Fix then turned to the nettlesome problem of torched commuter trains, which have cost the Passenger Rail Agency R636m in the past three years. In 2018 alone, according to the most recent statistics, 1,496 rail coaches were destroyed and passenger numbers halved, yet not a single person has been successfully prosecuted.

Not my problem, says Razzmatazz. “The duty to improve our rail service is a collective one,” he tweeted last week. The “organs of civil society … must champion the fight against criminality”, while knowing full well that civic action is pointless if the police don’t/won’t join the fight.

Pravin Gordhan, Minister of Public Enterprises, has also been quick to pick up the baton and lighten his own load, as he grapples with the death spiral of the national airliner. Last Sunday, he issued a statement saying that it is our “collective responsibility” as South Africans to support SAA in its “efforts to restore sales confidence among its customers and rebuild revenues in the shortest possible time”.

He neglects to mention that our collective responsibility may come with a substantial cost to our personal pockets. Despite the warnings of the unions that the planes are safety risks, having been patched with pirate parts, as well as that several travel groups and insurers will no longer guarantee the tickets, Gordhan is unperturbed. While the government won’t actually step in to underwrite your dodgy purchase — it is, however, willing in the short-term to toss in a few billions towards a business rescue —  it nevertheless “reassures customers and encourages them to buy tickets with confidence”.

The Democratic Alliance response was swift. Geordin Hill-Lewis, the party’s shadow finance minister, rejected the idea of an act of nationwide clenched-jaw endurance but mooted a collective responsibility of another kind. The most patriotic thing to do, Hill-Lewis said, would to help shut down SAA: “The public could force SAA into closure in a matter of days, by simply refusing to fly on it, so that it can be wound up and sold off.”

The only kind of collective responsibility that the ANC is not prattling on about is the traditional kind.

In other words, the Ramaphosa faction is not eager to take collective responsibility for turning a blind eye to state capture. And the Cabinet slithers away from collective responsibility for its non-performing ministers. And the ANC itself won’t ever take collective responsibility for allowing its thieving and incompetent cadres deployed to the top jobs in critical national institutions, then to be endlessly recycled to new top jobs each time they fail or are caught out.

But it’s not only an ANC problem. There is unfortunately also the electorate’s collective responsibility for letting these crooks and charlatans to get away with this.

So, what’s to be done about the ANC’s inclination towards collective irresponsibility? In the spirit of New Year resolutions peeping coyly at us from just a few weeks down the road, may I recommend to Ramaphosa and his crew a daring alternative to the “collective responsibility” of SA’s citizens?

It comes from a US president, Harry S Truman, who had a sign on his desk: “The buck stops here.”

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