South Africa: The President vs The People
The President's Us vs Them mentality is no different from an attitude of fighting everyone around us, including ourselves
South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki made a cardinal error when he fired his Deputy-Minister of Health, Madlala-Routledge. In itself, he might have thought he was entirely justified. On Saturday night’s SABC news he was interviewed saying, quite reasonably, that any person who works in government commits themselves to serve, including, serving within government. Any person who does not do that, must leave. Well said, Mr. President, but how utterly ironic.
A colleague recently echoed Mbeki’s sentiments, saying that any person who slanders the company they work for should be fired, as they ought to be. True. But in this case, the Deputy was unhappy about a government that wasn’t doing its job, and so in a sense, she was speaking ‘for the people’, especially since what she said happened to be true.
What my colleague doesn’t see is the fact that Mbeki’s actions here, while in the microcosm of the actual process they make sense, in the wider context of government efficacy he has been exposed (at least in the eyes of the populace) as a hypocrite.
The irony couldn’t be more acute. At the same time that the Deputy-Minister of Health, Madlala-Routledge was fired, the Health Minister (charged with solving an AIDS epidemic that has infected more South Africans than any other country on Earth) was undergoing surgery to replace an alcohol induced cirrhotic liver.
Reports that the Minister (dubbed Dr. Beetroot for her unconventional advice on AIDS treatments)
was abusive to staff in the Clinic where she was treated didn’t help her case. Neither did allegations that she had been drinking alcohol whilst in hospital.
Serious doubt has been cast not only on Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang, but on a President who has firmly supported her (despite obvious failings) thus far. Meanwhile, the president has dismissed Deputy-Minister of Health, Madlala-Routledge despite wide ranging reports that she was committed and involved and doing solid service to the community, particularly in the area of AIDS. Her work has been so effective in fact, that AIDS activists were outraged at her dismissal, saying they now felt 'vulernable' and intended to sue the government.
The President’s response has been to point out legalistic details and brand Madlala-Routledge a liar on his website, meanwhile Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang is taking to court the newspaper that published her escapades in hospital.
Recently the Sunday Times published an article indicating Tshabalala-Msimang, while working at a hospital in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Botswana in the 70’s, had stolen personal items from patients (including a watch, shoes, linen etc).
Opposition Party leader (and mayor of Cape Town) Helen Zille has said: "In any properly functioning democracy... Dr Tshabalala-Msimang would have been removed from her position a long time ago. That she has not been, says more about our President than about the health minister."*
The cardinal error the President has made is in underestimating the public’s resentment to almost perpetual government intransigence on a host of issues in South Africa, from AIDS to Zimbabwe. At the recent SADC conference, the leaders who gathered there decided the best course of action on Zimbabwe was ‘to do nothing’ and to ‘wait for the election’ to allow the problem to sort itself out.
The question must then be asked: what is a government actually for? The answer is usually something like this: to serve the people. What happens is citizens elect leaders, and then leaders effectively isolate themselves from the voters, and attempt to fortify or defend their positions. To actually answer to the electorate is so far beneath our leaders to be laughable. This is obvious across the board, from Mugabe to Bush.
The result of this arrogant and narcissistic attitude towards the nation of voters, is a schism between citizens and those ostensibly in place to govern them. The average citizen knows that officials riding around in expensive cars, living on inflated salaries (taxpayers money) etc. couldn’t care less about sorting out important civil problems, for example in less affluent suburbs (or rural areas) because effectively, this is a world away from where they live their lives in hardhearted comfort.
Our president's Us vs Them mentality is evidenced elsewhere in the world. The dangerous result is a slow growth of subversion in communities. At first it is harmless. A mass of people who simply doesn’t trust its own government, but tolerates it because it feels it is ‘stuck’ with it.
Populaces everywhere are free to enter the streets and as a form of popular protest, vote their feelings. We don’t do this probably because we have better things to do, and anyway, how does a President influence us anyway? We’re not necessarily any better or worse off whatever we do.
But there are those who are less inclined to roll over. We call them terrorists. Terrorists are also people who feel strongly about not wanting to be ruled by people who ruthlessly impose their rule, despite having lost the popular mandate to do so. So an attitude of disconnectedness from government can inculcate a similar attitude from the most destitute, from the most extreme segments of a community.
In that sense our leaders have a far greater responsibility towards us than they imagine.
*Quote from ‘Give evidence about Manto: Presidency’, an article compiled by Sapa<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />