William Saunderson-Meyer asks what word would best encapsulate our govt's dismal performance
Here’s a fun around-the-braai-fire game for those dark winter nights when the national grid is down, again. For those dreary evenings that cigarettes are banned, still; and alcohol is verboten, again.
It’s word game, a bit like I Spy With My Little Eye, and we take turns. So, what’s the single word that best explains the African National Congress government’s dismal performance after 26 years at it?
Is it corruption? Incompetence? Ignorance?
A case can be made for any and all of them, as well as for an array of others. But, to my mind, virtually every milestone that marks the ANC’s extensive and mortifying failures of governance can be traced to a single characteristic — expediency.
To put American poet Robert Frost’s much-quoted The Road Not Taken to less than lyrical use, every time two roads diverge in a political thicket, the ANC can be trusted to take not the one less travelled, but the one that looks easiest. It will choose the road that gets it out of the immediate fix, avoids the imminent inconvenience, or delays momentarily the difficult decision, always ignoring the abyss that is discernible down the track.
The ANC won’t act against corruption because so many of those guilty of it are its members or supporters. It’s expedient rather to try to contain the extent of state looting than to have to arrest half of the Cabinet.
It won’t act against incompetence because the failures of virtually every government department or state-affiliated entity can be traced either to cadre deployment or the dire influence of ANC-affiliated public sector unions. It's an expedient quick-fix instead to out-source the most critical functions to the private sector.
Nor is the ANC a collection of ignorant dolts. Collectively, it can probably bring to bear more brainpower, more intellectual sophistication, more cultural diversity, than that mustered by a homogenous National Party government of trilby-hatted, middle-aged, church-going, Afrikaans-speaking, white men.
But good governance is generally not about brilliance nor simply having the “better” ideology. It’s about taking common-sense decisions and carrying them out as effectively as possible.
Unfortunately, expediency is the curse of the ANC. It's the worm in its every apple. Take the black minibus tax industry’s recent actions, which come on top of a history of defying the law.
It’s difficult to think of any other country where a mafia will inform the nation on Sunday that it intends on Monday to cause the eventual premature death of hundreds, possibly thousands, of citizens, unless it is paid a massive ransom. Where else, except South Africa, would the response to such criminal, homicidal blackmail not be the declaration of martial law, mass police deployment, and pre-emptive arrests of the ringleaders?
Here, the reaction has been no more than a plaintive squeak from the government. “Please don’t do it”, pleaded Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.
Please don’t defy the lockdown regulations that for Covid control reasons limit the number of passengers in a minibus taxi. Pretty please don’t ignore the ban on interprovincial travel.
Let’s not have a “collision” over the more than R1.3bn that the government has offered as Covid relief to taxi owners for reduced revenue during the past months. It’s something that can be resolved, he promised. We’re flexible, he grovelled.
The medical profession, aghast at this proposed flouting of social-distancing regulations, also chipped in. Non-compliance by the members of the SA National Taxi Council (Santaco) would invalidate the effort made by all the other sectors, the experts warned.
Professor Mosa Moshabela, head of the University of KZN’s school of medicine, said Santaco's move would have disastrous consequences. “It is irresponsible in the extreme ... If people do what they have to, but taxi operators do what they want, our fight against Covid-19 is bound to fail.”
But Santaco— serenely confident after years of flouting the law with impunity that things would be no different this time — ignored the medical experts and defied the government. On Monday this week, the minibuses were again filled to pre-lockdown levels.
In other words, to the 120%-150% above the legal passenger capacity that has been the tolerated norm for decades. Interprovincial travel has also resumed, presumably so as to best speed the transmission of the virus from pandemic hot spots in Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Gauteng to less affected areas in the other provinces.
Predictably, nothing happened. No roadblocks, no fines, no arrests.
On Tuesday, Mbalula again addressed the Santaco mafia. He warned taxi operators that they were setting up a clash with law enforcement: “You’re daring the law, you’re challenging the authority of the state.”
The man who styles himself as Mr Fixit was metaphorically wringing his hands in despair: “There’s no need to defy any law, or directions that we have issued. There’s no need to take to the streets and fight over these particular issues.”
Understandably, Santaco was contemptuously dismissive. Santaco national spokesperson Thabiso Molelekwa gleefully told the media that taxi operators throughout the country had heeded the call to operate at full loading capacity. ‘We have not encountered a situation where law enforcement agencies have impounded taxis. We can also confirm that they are doing interprovincial travel.”
Santaco’s show of strength appears to stem partly from irritation that Mbalula had cancelled meetings at which they were hoping to prise loose an even more generous dollop of relief funds. But the reward of a bigger payout is only part of the story.
It’s also about Santaco’s members avoiding a world of future pain. The taxi owners are dead set against the government’s attempts, as with other sectors, to use the pandemic as a means of bringing those who have not been paying taxes into the revenue net.
Covid relief to Santaco comes with stringent conditions. The taxi owners must formally register as businesses; they must sign up with the revenue service; they must register their employees with the Unemployment Insurance Fund, the Compensation Commission, and for the skills development levy. In other words, they must start behaving like responsible citizens, not rampaging outlaws.
It’s not going to happen easily and expedience already scents the air. After all those the stern warnings, Mbalula, like a clockwork toy, is flagging after only three days. He has already apologised for the missed meetings and is now hinting at concessions.
The meetings had been missed “due to unforeseen circumstances” but were now rescheduled. And it was regrettable, wheedled Mbalula, that the taxi industry has “elected to violate the law and forcefully load taxis at 100% capacity and undertake interprovincial operations without the requisite permits, rather than await a decision on the matters they have tabled”.
“I appeal to the leadership … to reconsider their decision to incite lawlessness and place their drivers and passengers on a collision course with law enforcement authorities. While we have expressed support for a review of loading capacity to 100%, until the current directions have been revised, the legal loading capacity is 70% and enforceable by law enforcement authorities.” Ja, sure.
This most recent dispute with Santaco, like virtually every stumbling block the ANC government encounters, is not the constant jockeying that takes place in normal societies between competing power blocs. In normal societies, that would, almost always, happen within a template of law, accountability and vaguely shared values.
In SA, on the other hand, the lesson that the political players have learnt from the ANC over almost three decades is simple. It’s that the government’s default modus operandi is expediency.
It will blink. It will fold. It will choose the Mr EasyFix route of appeasement over necessity.