In a radio discussion about the failure, inability, refusal or a combination of these factors, by some residents of Soweto to pay for the electricity they consume, and when a man was asked during the same discussion if he was aware that the prevalent phenomenon of illegal electricity connections is a crime, his response was simply to say that “everything is illegal in South Africa.”
He came short of saying that we’re a lawless society; but perhaps that is what he meant. He repeated this claim number of times as he tried to justify the situation in Soweto by citing the cases of unemployed grandmothers who rely solely on meagre government pensions or grants to feed several grandchildren, often orphaned. Whenever they bought prepaid electricity, he said, it never lasts until the end of the month, so what do you expect them to do?
Other residents who could afford to pay their share made it clear that they too had no intention to pay, as they considered electricity, just like water, to be a basic human right that they’re entitled to and for which they shouldn’t be made to pay.
In any case, a woman said, they were promised free electricity by the ANC government, so there is no need for them to be paying for a service that had been promised to them free of charge.
It didn’t matter that fellow South Africans in other parts of the city and country had to pay for such services.
Now, few will dispute the accepted narrative that the culture of ‘non-payment’ for services in South African townships can be traced back to anti-apartheid struggle years when, in an effort to frustrate and bankrupt the National Party government, black communities across the country were encouraged by trade unions and other struggle leaders, at home and in exile, not to pay for government services. Sadly, this culture has persisted to a quarter of the century after the end of apartheid and government has failed, on the whole, to bring an end to it.
It’s all over the place
But we shouldn’t fool ourselves; lawlessness in South Africa is not limited to the refusal by township residents in Soweto and other parts of the country to pay their share for public services.
It can be seen by the way we drive, by the number of road rage incidents, accidents and deaths on our roads. It is also coming out of the horrific revelations in the various hearings and commissions of inquiry underway.
It is in parts of the SAPS, the NPA, and even the intelligence services, which have been exposed to have been working at the service of powerful politicians instead of channelling their energy and using the resources placed at their disposal to enhance and protect the interests of South Africa.
There might be patterns that can be ascribed to different parts of the country and, even to some extent, to specific population groups, but lawlessness is lawlessness, whether it wears a worker’s overall, a maid’s uniform, a blue collaror a white collar, and irrespective of the racial or ethnic identity of the person responsible for it.
South Africans have taken to cutting corners whenever they believe they can get away with it. They do so because they believe it is their right to do so, for as long as they don’t get caught.
Lawlessness has been normalised
A few years ago, a group of people saw nothing wrong with a reported R246m in public funds being spent on construction and refurbishments at former President Jacob Zuma’s sprawling rural Nkandla homestead. Some even said that as president, Zuma had the right to spend public funds on improving his home.
Sadly, there are still people who hold these views, including that Zuma and his friends have done nothing wrong and should be left alone.
While several senior officials have been made to leave, or got fired, or got suspended from SARS and various state-owned entities following revelations of the roles they played in enabling the Zupta-led state capture and for their involvement in other forms of corruption, none of them have been hauled before courts of our land to account for their actions.
They walk the streets and appear with impunity in media interviews as experts in the fields they occupied and criminally abused. There is no shame on their part and there is no shame on the media houses that provide them with platforms to try and justify their actions because they’re innocent until proven otherwise; all in a world where there are no indications that those who should are doing anything at all to bring them to justice.
Lack of leadership from the front
The fact that we sit with cabinet ministers who have been implicated in all forms of wrongdoing in contravention of the values that were meant to underpin our Constitutional ethos is not helping.
None of them will resign unless asked to, or made to, and it has become clear that the president will not act against them, even when we all know that they serve at his pleasure and that, unlike ordinary workers, are not subject to our very onerous labour laws and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.
The president doesn’t even have to fire them directly, he could simply issue a statement, or mention in one of his many public addresses, that he expects ministers who have had a dark shadow cast over their integrity by the courts or through one of the commissions and hearings currently underway to “do the right thing” and step aside; or step down; or resign, the vocabulary he could use is unlimited.
It is clear, none of them will go unless the president says so.
Absence of clarity from the president on his feelings about discussing crucial matters of state with individuals who might soon face criminal prosecution – unless they all know some things the rest of us don’t – and end up in jail is not good for South Africa. It sends the wrong message and it provides excuses for ordinary citizens to justify their own lawlessness.
Before the rot of our lawlessness eats us up, someone needs to stand up right at the front – not quite like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame but with almost similar resoluteness – and remind South Africans of whom they can still be.