SAfm talk show host Eric Miyeni got it exactly right the other evening when he inveighed against the habit of referring to South Africa’s poor as “the masses”. It is a condescending, dehumanizing term, implying, consciously or not, a sense of lordly detachment on the part of the person using it.
Unfortunately, but for good and evident historical reasons, it has become deeply imbedded in South African political discourse. And not only there.
Not long ago I got an email announcing that South Africa was to exhibit at the annual flower show at Washington’s National Cathedral. This, said the writer, a member of the embassy staff, was “an excellent opportunity to reach the masses with a positive message from South Africa”.
I responded unkindly: there were no masses in America – that was not how Americans defined themselves – and if there were, it was highly unlikely they would be attending a flower show in the Episcopalian precincts of the National Cathedral.
What there is in America is some 301 million individuals. To their politicians, these people are, and command attention as, constituents.
When I have a problem with the federal government, I ring up my Congressman. Or at least my wife does. She, unlike myself, is a fully-fledged American citizen and voter. Our congressman is one Roscoe Bartlett.
He would not, in the normal run of things, be our first choice. But today and until such time as he is found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy (in the colourful phrase of the late Louisiana governor, Edwin Edwards), he has my wife’s unwavering vote. He delivers.
Last year, in yet another post 9/11 inconvenience, the Department of Homeland Security triggered a surge in applications for passports by ending the practice of letting Americans travel to Canada and Mexico without them. The surge was unaccompanied by planning to accommodate it. In the resulting chaos, applications to renew my children’s passports so we could travel to Europe got lost, as did countless others.
A call to Bartlett’s office saved the holiday. A case worker was promptly on the phone to the State Department. Bureaucrats, previously impervious, snapped to attention and extracted their digits. The passports arrived two days later, by courier.
I wonder whether the horrendous attacks on foreigners we have witnessed over the past couple of weeks would have occurred if Alexandra had had a Bartlett — an elected representative at national level with an ear to the ground and the clout to make things happen, someone who owed their position to constituents rather than party.
This is not an original thought. “The electoral system must be revised,” the President’s mother Epainette Mbeki, wrote in the Sunday Times last January. “Individual members of Parliament should be elected directly by citizens at polling stations in relevant, direct constituencies.”
A directly elected MP for Alexandra – let us stipulate that MP’s must be residents of their constituencies – would have known that trouble was brewing. He or she would not only have had a finger on the community’s pulse but, just as important, would have alleviated the sense of powerlessness that was clearly a factor driving the descent into mob violence.
If Epainette Mbeki had her way, we might not now be talking about the failure of intelligence agencies. You don’t have to spy on people if you have a political system that requires you to be in touch with them to begin with.
List-based proportional representation had its place in ensuring that no one felt excluded in the first blush of democracy. However, after fourteen years, it has not served the cause of accountable government. Rather it has encouraged a politics that treats South Africa’s poor as faceless, increasingly irritating masses who are failing to respond in the manner desired by their leaders.
The communal violence may be a coal mine canary. Its song is not that there is something wrong with South Africa’s people, as some would have it. The message, rather, is that what is broken is lines of communication and accountability between people and their government. That can happen when flesh and blood human beings with all their glorious individuality and complexity are converted into masses. Happily, the fix is quite simple. Alexandra needs a Bartlett.