Thursday, May 01, 2008

Freedom's burdens

Freedom's burdens


The string of holidays, a bit of a nightmare for those trying to do some work - with businesses hard-pressed to eke out a living in ever-deteriorating conditions - provides some respite to many for what has been a roller coaster so early in the year.

A few months into the new year and it already has the festive feel of December about it.

People are knackered, drained emotionally and physically. As the saying goes, it has not just been raining; it's been pouring an unremitting stream of bad news since Polokwane, which saw the unfathomable rise of Jacob Zuma. The Reserve Bank governor is in an unforgiving, intolerant mood. The price of oil - therefore of everything else - is reaching the stratosphere. Food is getting more expensive and less affordable and the spectre of food riots is becoming an ever-increasing reality. Violent crime remains a constant danger. The mess in Zimbabwe has worsened and our president has added fuel to the fire with his crass utterances and omissions.

And, of course, there's Eskom, the mother of all cock-ups. I wonder whether the brothers at Eskom would recognise a generator if they were to collide with one. They should be wearing sackcloth, weeping and wailing, and covering themselves in ashes for putting the future of the country and the wellbeing of its people in peril. Instead they're demanding a bonus. It's an obscenity. The fact that their political masters are indifferent to the disaster they have caused is almost rubbing salt into a festering wound. But I digress.

The litany of bad news has wiped the smile off our collective faces. The stress is telling. The holidays, Freedom Day and Workers' Day, which have so badly mangled this week, are a benefit of our new dispensation, a time to pause and reflect. And there's been a lot of reflection on what it means to be free, and what this democracy has achieved.

Unfortunately most such ruminations have tended to be negative. You hear it all the time: crime is rife because the constitution no longer allows the police to beat confessions out of suspects ; children have lost all respect for their elders because corporal punishment, at school and in the home, has been outlawed; managers can't manage any more because the law makes it almost impossible to discipline or sack workers; and in any case the unions are in bed with government, so they can get whatever they want. Teachers, well, they're useless and powerful; even the minister of education won't scratch herself without asking for their permission. The list goes on.

It's not as if there's some light at the end of this dark tunnel. It's been switched off - by Eskom, of course. And the unedifying prospect of a Zuma presidency looms large.

People tend to feel like hostages, believing that there's nothing they can do to extricate themselves from the web of problems confronting them. That's when they start looking around for a strongman, a Lee Kuan Yew or a Mahathir Mohamad; somebody able to keep the criminals at bay or behind bars and get the trains to run on time, even if it means sacrificing a few liberties.

Which is why the reaction to deputy safety and security minister Susan Shabangu's exhortation to the police to forget about the constitution and "shoot the bastards" (that is, criminals) has on the whole elicited a positive response from a public hankering for a tough guy. Some disillusionment with democracy seems to be setting in. But democracy was never supposed to be a panacea.

Democracy is like a marriage; after a whirlwind courtship and honeymoon, it tends to become banal, and can even go a bit pear-shaped. The trick is to keep working on it all the time.

But the fault in our case doesn't lie with democracy. It's competence that's missing.