Democracy: African or European?

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

‘Venice is quite a lovely place,’ was the answer the South African arts and culture minister, Paul Mashatile, gave to a question put to him on radio. The question concerned allegations of corruption regarding South Africa’s participation in the 2011 Venice Biennale.  Although one must give the minster some credit for imagination, this kind of answer is, sadly, typical of the kind bald-faced contempt that government figures, all too often, show towards South Africa’s democratic system.

To be sure a relatively small amount of money – about R10-million – is in question with regards the corruption surrounding Venice (the Biennale that is, not the lovely place). But what is significant is that the story itself acts as a perfect heuristic for South African political life that is both disturbing and, in a strange way, reassuring.

It goes without saying that it will take the country many years to move on from certain ‘political’ understandings.  One of the recurrent rubrics is that ‘we cannot expect European standards in an African country’. And no matter how reluctant one is to admit it, the post-Mandela government has done a relatively decent job in validating this rather vile notion.  For no matter how optimistic you are about South Africa, the fact remains that the consequences of a kleptocratic, schizophrenic and non-transparent government have been very bad.

But as I often hear from my European friends there are not in fact two standards, one African and another European, because corruption is present in both paradigms.  They persistently tell me that ‘government corruption is government’ no matter what county you live in.  This is true.  However what is in question is how accountable the government is to this corruption and to what degree the government allows transparency.

And on this front it would, surely, beggar belief if a European government minister merely said that ‘Venice is quite a lovely place’ when asked to respond to the allegations of corruption surrounding his involvement with ‘[the] Venice [Biennale]’. Nor could a government department in Europe simply ignore a request for public information for nine solid months. And could a European government department, in the age of emails, really repeatedly claim that the reason that they did not respond to requests for information was that they had ‘misplaced the draft’?  Well this can and does happen in South Africa.  And does so, seemingly, without so much as a blink of the eye. Or is there just one blink?

And now some background is needed. On the 27April last year the Venice Biennale announced that South Africa would participate at the Biennale for the first time since 1995. It also announced that a Lethole Mokoena would be its commissioner.  Of course Lethole Mokoena turned out to be Mr Monna Mokoena a private gallerist in Johannesburg and a person was rumoured to be a friend of the minister. And unsurprisingly two of the artists that were sent to the Biennale were none other than artists from Mr Mokeona’s own gallery.  This revelation set off a storm within the South African art world.  People wanted to know why no boarder consultation had taken place and why Mr Mokeona had seemingly been given government patronage without any tender process having transpired. And then one of the artists (the only one without a gallery connection to Mokoena) pulled out due to ‘a lack of transparency’.

The matter went all the way to parliament, but again there hardly seemed to be a blink of the eye.  The department merely responded that ‘there was no time to call for public participation since any delay would have caused South Africa to miss the [Beinnale’s] deadline’ – this although Mr Mokoena admitted that he had been preparing for it since 2009.  The department also stated that ‘the process was transparent since the Commissioner reported to the Department’.

However, the matter did not simply end there.  Eventually parliamentary pressure produced a budget. The budget revealed that Mokoena had requested amongst many other things R36 000 a month for six months to run a twitter account. All the while nine months of journalistic demands for information produced nothing.  Finally, after court papers were served on department it succumbed.  On the 4th of this month the department duly handed over documents containing one minuted meeting that the department had had with Mr Mokoena – together with two letters and the record of two a bank transfers totaling R10-million.

To be sure one minuted meeting does not a functioning democracy make, but what this meeting did reveal is perhaps the most encouraging sign that one could have possibly have hoped for.  And that is that, although the minister may get away with ‘Venice is a lovely place’, the department, in the minutes at least, shows a deep and telling concern for Mr Mokoena’s and the minister’s lack of democratic procedures.

The minutes of the meeting reflect that department expressing, before the issue had even made it into the media, deep alarm that Mr Mokoena had not consulted with the rest of the arts industry. It also raised the concern that Mr Mokoena’s actions ‘could not only get bad publicity from the sector if they have not been consulted, but parliamentary questions can put the Minister in a difficult position.’  It went further saying Mokoena’s actions ‘should not compromise the minister.’ And that it ‘anticipated a lot of questions from the industry at large’ and suggested Mr Mokoena go and consult with other in the arts industry.

However the department democratic anxieties were in stark contrast to Mr Mokoena’s and his spokesperson Mr Victor Dlamini’s.  For the minutes reflect Mokoena steamrolling the department, saying that it is too late to consult with the sector because the deal was ‘done and dusted’. Mokoena also states that he had previously ‘discussed the artists and proposal with the minister and the he [the minister] approved.’  He is also noted as stating that ‘at this late stage [the inclusion of other artists was] not possible’.  He also slightly bizarrely states that consultation had in fact taken place with people in Belgium and the Netherlands.

So the long and the short of it is that it seems to be that democracy is not entirely dead in South Africa after all. That is to say that it lives and breathes in that most unlikeliest of places, a government department.  And at the very least what this story has revealed is that there is in fact a democratic standard that is alive and well but that in this case it would seem to have been marginalised and subverted by both greed and hubris. What is so alarming about the story is how the minister’s, Mr Mokoena’s and Mr Dlamini’s actions have forced the department into a position with which it is clearly uncomfortable.  Considering what else has transpired both in the press and in parliament it would seem that the department has on many occasions been forced to do the minister’s and Mr Mokoena’s bidding, which seems clearly at odds with departments own instincts.

This is precisely what is at the root of so many of South Africa’s current problems: a corrupt and arrogant ruling elite who remain largely untouchable.  For although, as this story indicates, democratic sentiments exist it still remains true that large sections of the government and their cronies simply scoff at it.   And sadly this kind of arrogance is often shared by the ANC’s opposition in parliament, the Democratic Alliance, who in their fiefdom of the Western Cape are, in my experience, almost as defensive and dismissive in their attitude towards releasing public information.

Interestingly what seems to be developing in the country are two strains of civil action.  On the one hand civil rights campaigns like Right2Known (a campaign against the new Information Bill) have recently been forming, while on the other hand people have been venting their displeasure with the government in what have been termed ‘service delivery riots’ – people throwing stones and petrol bombs at the police in areas with poor or non-existent infrastructure.  These movements and acts of civil disobedience, like those in many other countries today, remain strangely unaligned to party politics. COSATU (the trade union politically aligned to the ANC) has also been active in these areas criticizing the government on policy and failure to address corruption – but as yet they show no signs of wanting to break from their political partners. There is also the developing presence of the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who is both well respected (and disliked) on both sides of the political spectrum and whose interventions have thus far proved to have delivered some interesting results.

However the major problem that exists is the failure of a legitimate opposition party that can threaten the ANC government in an election and that can hold them to account.  The DA for many, including myself, does not and can’t fulfill this role unless it veers considerably and definitively to the left – something that its largely white conservative base will never allow.  The simple truth of it is that the ANC still stands in this leftist position, or at least is perceived to stand there by an electorate that listens to its rhetoric.  For another party to try and root itself in the same soil, while at the same time being a legitimate option for a large section of the black population is no doubt one of South Africa’s greatest challenges.  And this is certainly many years if not decades away from happening.

So the time to account for many of the political elite is still, realistically, very far away but as the above story proves it is not for a lack of democratic sentiment. Like in many parts of the world today South Africa’s real democratic movement has yet to come. But its embers seem at least to lie cozily in the heart of the establishment quietly awaiting to alight on the winds of change. As yet, however, those winds are merely the equivalent to the breeze off five pieces of paper received, after nine months of constant pressure, from the department of arts and culture.

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