No power to the people

Jun 03 2013 08:25
*Mandi Smallhorne

Atul Gupta. The debate in parliament around the Guptagate scandal was nothing but a charade. (Leon Sadiki, City Press)

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MY WHOLE world has been shattered. Mattel has ‘upgraded’ the Scrabble app on Facebook.

And as is so often true, the ‘upgrade’ is worse than the original. Aargh. I rely on Scrabble for those moments when you need a mental break, or you’re waiting for something to download. Now it’s gone, gone, gone…

But here’s the thing: I’m not alone. About 3 500 players commented over the first 15 hours of New Scrabble’s life, all variants on the basic theme: “New Scrabble sucks! Bring back the old Scrabble!”

Have we heard from Mattel, Scrabble’s maker? Not a chance – and I’m not holding my breath.

The sense of despair when something is taken away from you by a big kid and broken, and your cry for justice is not heard, is too familiar.

And if I was able to communicate with the powers-that-be, or PTB (who, of course, are too busy hoovering up Johnny Walker Blue to pay any attention), I would warn them that one of the major precipitants of depression is a sense of loss of control.

People who feel in overall control of their lives are resilient and able to roll with the punches. But have you ever had to work under one of those psycho bosses, the kind who move goalposts constantly and never consult, negotiate or consider their staff?

The gloom, hopelessness and depression in departments like this are palpable.

And that’s how I’m feeling as a citizen of South Africa today.

Citizens in democracies have a few ways to feel that they have agency in their own countries, that they have some control or input into how countries are run.

One is the obvious: they vote for the political party whose policies they think best represent their wishes; and then they trust their members of parliament to act vigorously to implement and defend those policies.

Well, the recent Guptagate ‘debate’ in parliament was an encapsulation of the ineffectuality of our parliament. The government withheld the Gupta report from parliament, releasing it to media as the debate started – so opposition members ‘debated’ with one hand tied behind their backs.

It was just a charade, a piece of theatre so the government could sit back and say: “Well, we had a debate in parliament, you know.” And we all know it. We know our sleeping or absent MPs aren’t working on our behalf.

Another way citizens experience agency is knowing that certain instruments of justice operate on their behalf. If someone commits a crime, the justice system hunts him down, prosecutes him on our behalf and sees that justice is done.

A couple of months ago, I asked a woman involved in welfare work how much she trusts the police (she has to deal with them a lot). She looked at me and raised her index finger and thumb in the shape of a big, fat ‘O’ – not one bit, zero, zilch.

Oh, there are some decent ones, she went on to say, as do we all, but the overall feeling among South Africans seems to be that the police are not actually working for us, the citizens.

Meanwhile, several hammer blows have badly damaged the reputation of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) recently: think J Arthur Brown, the Anene Booysen mess and the general consensus among commentators that the NPA made a hash of the Andries Tatane case.

And just last week, we heard that Glynnis Breytenbach, the prosecutor accused of all sorts of malfeasance by the NPA, was just so totally not guilty that the NPA is going to have to do a lot of repair work on its reputation to make South Africans believe that it’s driven by a desire to seek justice on our behalf, and not by much less noble motives.

Another way citizens can feel they are agents is to take up the cudgels when they fail to get heard, and protest – anything from petitions to the full banners-and-placards march. The idea is that the PTB get their knickers in a knot about their upset citizens and come out to negotiate.

After all, we are their bosses, right? We pay their salaries, we fund their programmes and we can fire them if they don’t work on our behalf.

But that’s not working. Take the e-tolling thing.

We all know that infrastructure must be paid for, but as has been clearly stated, many of us have issues with how this deal works – the enormous amount it costs to collect the tolls (and police unpaid tolls), money leaving South Africa to enrich others rather than being ploughed back into our own country, with that faint, ineffable scent that might hint at corruption, with the lack of adequate consultation and transparency…

And over and over again, the South African National Roads Agency Ltd spokespeople, patronising noses in the air, accuse us of not understanding that roads must be paid for. Huh? Cue frustration! Why don’t you just listen and answer the questions we’re actually asking?

No wonder we feel like we’ve no say, no agency, no control…

PTB, would you listen to me? This has got to stop. You want a country with voomah, an economy firing on all cylinders, you can’t get it with a citizenry that’s sunk in depression. The bosses – moi and my fellow citizens – demand that you work on our behalf.

Not yours. Geddit?

 - Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own.

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