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Politicians, poverty and manipulating the masses

Jan 11 2017 05:01
Solly Moeng*

FIRST, let me state the following upfront: poverty, low levels of education, lack of information, inability or laziness to analyse data and to connect the dots are all enemies of democracy.

In countries that enjoy a combination of high education levels and literacy on the one hand, and low poverty levels and smaller gaps between rich and poor on the other, citizens are less easily manipulated by unscrupulous politicians who can get away with throwing crumbs at them while they keep the fat for themselves and those around them.

Because they are often informed and can easily access information through a combination of official avenues, free press and the internet, the political choices of citizens in more developed countries are usually harder to manipulate than those of people in less developed nations.

This is despite all evidence that the easy accessibility of information is no guarantee that citizens will use available information to inform political and other choices. We’ve seen this in the UK, where many seem to have failed to ask the right questions about Brexit in order to inform their referendum vote, and more recently in the USA, where Donald Trump came out victor in the presidential poll despite all odds.

Many Americans are still trying to understand how their country got to be where it finds itself; but these might yet be early days.

Hlaudi shows 'appreciation' with R9m of SABC funds

Here in South Africa, we had a good example just before the 2016 local government elections of what typically happens in countries like ours. Hlaudi Motsoeneng – most probably not working alone - ignored whatever finance management procedures were in place at the SABC and decided to unilaterally give away R9m of the corporation's funds in R50 000 batches to selected local artists.

He claimed to be doing this “as a token of appreciation”, but only people who managed to connect the dots would have seen the bigger picture in which he played so brilliantly.  

Following this unexpected windfall, the artists did what artists do best: they went out and quickly produced songs in praise of Motsoeneng, seen as a saviour by many of those whose commercial careers had stopped years ago, reducing them to living from hand to mouth after squandering much of the fortunes they had amassed in short-term luxuries.

To this group of people, nothing else had meaning. There were no reputational concerns to worry about and it didn’t matter that Motsoeneng could have broken corporate governance rules to access the reported R9m. In this case, the artists were not much different to a community beholden to a local druglord who occasionally gives out petty cash and other favours in exchange for community silence and protection when law enforcement comes sniffing around.    

Poverty impedes full realisation of SA's democratic ideals

The socio-economic conditions of poor people across South Africa, those with very little education and the millions who remain stuck under the archaic leadership of a bunch of unelected chiefs who cannot be questioned, are by default obstacles to the full realisation of our democratic ideals.

They blind such people to the importance of political reputation. Their conditions make them perpetually vulnerable to abuse by Motsoeneng-type of characters and political formations who have mastered the art of throwing peanuts in their direction at strategic times.

South Africa boasts a celebrated constitution and democratic institutions, but even these instruments of democracy do not suffice to shield the integrity of this democracy if unscrupulous and tainted politicians can simply throw lousy peanuts at people to get them on their side.

It benefits only the enemies of democracy to keep the masses of our people in a perpetual cycle of poverty, while those who govern them remain at the top of pyramids built with stolen public goods.

Still merrily Zuma-ing along

Despite everything that has been written and said, and despite numerous court pronouncements on the proven and still alleged sins of our president, he manages to pull the wool over the eyes of many by playing victim to Western culture and institutions, and by throwing big parties to fill up the tummies of the poor for a day.

The faceless “white monopoly capital”, he tells them, making sure to say it in Zulu with all its nuances, “is the problem; not me. It wants to effect regime change in our country and to reverse the gains we’ve made when we defeated apartheid”.

Sadly, many are blinded by the beauty of his vernacular and easily buy into his deceitful pronouncements. While totally destroyed elsewhere, his reputation and ethical standing are not questioned when tummies are filled for a day and traditions poetically appealed to.     

No doubt, if South Africa is to stand a good chance to fully realise the ideals of the democracy it has developed a blueprint for, more has to be done to eradicate poverty and invest in education - from Grade R right through Grade 12 as well as tertiary education.

The latter must include the freeing of our children’s education from the clutches of a teachers’ union whose only concern seems to be the interests of its members – some of whom lack basic requirements to teach.

While fingers can legitimately be pointed at lingering inherited structural issues, bad governance, wanton corruption, state capture and the deployment of ethically and professionally ill-equipped people into important state institutions are the modern obstacles in our journey to a fully inclusive democracy. They also impact on the reputation of our nation brand.      

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley. Views expressed are his own.

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solly moeng  |  opinion

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