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Time to knock undeserving politicians off their pedestals

- William Gumede

Sadly, politicos have become the pre-eminent role models for many black South Africans.

Hero-worshiping politicians is one of the reasons for the crisis of mediocrity across society. It has dumbed down public discourse. It has made incompetence, corruption, and anti-intellectualism acceptable. It has stunted South Africa’s development, innovation, and prosperity.

Politicians are often treated as celebrities by many black South Africans, including the youth. They are often put on a pedestal. They are bestowed with enormous social power – whether ideological, political or influence, even if they lack merit, honesty, or ideas.  

At public events ordinary citizens stand up to honour often corrupt, income and uncaring politicians. Ministers are often called “honourable” when there is nothing honourable about them. Sadly, some citizens even kneel before politicians. These practices deferring to politicians must stop. In fact, politicians must call citizens ‘your honourable’ or kneel before citizens, because citizens pay their fat salaries, benefits, and freebie lifestyles. Perhaps if this happens, politicians will be accountable, deliver the public services they promise and be more honest.

Because politicians are frequently put on pedestal, the public accepts them being overpaid, being driven around, protected at the taxpayers’ expense, exempted from loadshedding. Politicians do not use the public transport, schools, and hospitals they extol – and which they incompetently oversee.

All over the country street, building and park names are named after politicians. Universities give misplaced honorary degrees to politicians, appointing them to head their councils and as Chancellors.

Politicians are regularly asked to give annual memorial lectures, mouthing mostly platitudes or rehashing rhetoric, outdated, limited, and outdated beliefs, devoid of evidence, facts, and wider research. Government regularly put politicians high up on the annual honorary lists.

Private companies are increasingly appointing politicians to boards, many times to safeguards government contracts, licences and to protect against reprimands against consumer exploitation, labour rights violations and environmental obligations.

Sadly, the hero worshipping of flawed politicians, has caused many thinking black people of being accused of by large numbers of black South Africans, sadly especially the young, of being “clever blacks” a derogatory term used by former President Jacob Zuma for black South Africans who were critical of corruption, victimhood and black and white thinking, the tendency to think in extremes, blaming conspiracies for self-inflicting failures, and slavish mass conformism to self-harm beliefs.

Politician entrepreneurs such as Edwin Sodi, who get government contracts, purely on political connectedness, even if they do not have the skills, capacity, or care to deliver on their government contracts are hero worship as so-called “businessmen and women”.

Genuine entrepreneurs, who create businesses, which create jobs, reduce poverty and inequality are not given the same veneration as given to politicians. In contrast in most emerging markets entrepreneurs, innovators and genuine businesspeople are hero worship.

In China, entrepreneurs, are so admired by ordinary citizens, that the Chinese government have increasingly clipped the wings of the great entrepreneurs like Jack Ma because they are perceived to be more popular than politicians. In the successful East Asian developmental states or the Asian tigers, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial civil servants, and innovative professionals were put on pedestals.

This is one of the reasons why these East Asian societies achieved their post-Second World War economic miracles, compared to most politician admiring African countries which have in the post-colonial period deindustrialised, meaning many became poorer, lost their ability to manufacture, became less skilled and saw their infrastructure regress.

Politicians have made many individual black South Africans fabulously and instantly rich. Former President Jacob Zuma for example could build a R28-milllion family compound in Nkandla on taxpayers money. Because of this politics have become for many the preferred route for paycheck, wealth, and power. Many ANC members kill others to become elected politicians.

Since 1994 politicians have become increasingly more corrupt, incompetent, and superficial. The most corrupt, incompetent, violent, unemployable, and clueless appear to seek power through politics.

In South Africa politicians have sadly become the pre-eminent role models for many black youths. They set the moral, social, and political norms, fashion, and trends. Many young people copy the bling behaviour, the violent dismissing of evidence and facts and the empty pontification of politicians.

Because politicians are hero worshipped, many, including black youth see politics as the only way to individual economic freedom. Very few see pursuing professional careers that demand long studies, such as engineering, academia, and science as appealing.

As politicians are elevated in society, professions such as engineering, accounting and medicine are devalued. Artisans, craftsmen and craftswomen and technicians are even more disdained by many. Unless society put politicians less on pedestals, treat them like ordinary citizens and hold them accountable, the incompetence, corruption, and anti-intellectualism will continue, and South Africa will continue its downward spiral into a failed state.  

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in the SundayTimes/TimesLive.