Parliament. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Parliament. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

SA’s problem is not new, it is called anacyclosis — the cycles of government as postulated by Aristotle. 

Paul Meany, discussing Polybius, the originator of the ideas around the separation of powers in around 200BC, puts it this way: “The central problem in anacyclosis, as Polybius characterises it, is the lack of continuity between successive generations. The justice of the monarch decays to the pride of the tyrant. The virtue of the aristocrat decays to the indulgence of the oligarch. The equality of the democrat decays to the greed of the mob. Unsurprisingly, this decline culminates in anarchy. Reverting once more to step one, the grim sequence began again. Was there any solution to this miserable and eternal cycle?”

Polybius raises the question of how Rome could prevent itself entering the same trap as Aristotle’s Athens, falling into mediocrity, confusion and destitution after the death and ousting of the great men who founded it. He identifies two primary forces in human nature, one driven by reason and the other by instinct. Sympathy and fear. He does not believe one can force fear out of the hearts of humans, or that you can make all humans virtuous. What he identifies in the unique construction of the Roman constitution is that fear has been used constructively to promote sympathy.

Meany again: “By moulding politics around human nature, Polybius’s account of the Roman constitution demonstrates how conflict, since it cannot be avoided, should instead be utilised in the most productive manner possible for the common good.”

We broaden the smile of the nation by making our public servants fear our incorruptibility

Reinforcing this is James Madison in the Federalist 47: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

How did we in SA then fall into this well-documented trap?

I fear, we forgot the power of fear as a force for virtue. Polybius's lesson is amply illustrated in commerce every day. We, the consumers, use fear to motivate the multitude of suppliers, who fear us leaving them for an alternative supplier. 

They also fear their competitors will improve their offerings and take their customers. The anacyclosis paradigm also manifests itself as once proud companies, started by founders who began from zero, are replaced by those who seek to impose their authority on the market. Unless they change, they will go the way of the wind.

Polybius identifies that we are self-interested and driven to acquire power. He however misses Aristotle and Plato’s findings in the original analysis. In all the renaissance stages of the anacyclosis, be it monarch, aristocracy or democrat, honour, respect and being noble are the central traits. In the competence stage, competence and truth are more important than power, be it in commerce or politics.

All the further stages are authoritarian by nature and herein lies the trap. Polybius again: “When these people lust for power and cannot attain it through themselves or their own good qualities, they ruin their estates, tempting and corrupting the people in every possible way.”

We have been lulled into a false security in this New Dawn (stage 1). We do not see, or do not want to see, once the switch has occurred. We seek competence, but we get authority instead, with all its lack of competence. Who in SA would claim competence for anyone in the civil service? They might be there, but the spectre of incompetence towers so high that these competent souls are all but lost and we end with Athens’ fate — mediocrity, confusion and destitution.

Looking back, it’s easy to identify our missteps. The courts deferred to the legislature in allowing them to make their own mistakes. In this process it allowed them to destroy a body the legislature feared, namely the Scorpions. Two mighty blows to the pillars of the separation of powers. The Scorpions’ duty was to fight for power and put fear into the legislature, which would have given virtue at least half a chance.

The citizens of this fair land were also duped by illusionists playing with their sympathies. They, too, forgot to exercise their ability to invoke fear in the legislature, a mere 400 humans who hold 56-million others to ransom.

If we simply divide the debts of government-run organisations by the total population, each man, woman and child is on the line for at least R25,000.  What have we to show for this debt? A pile of broken power stations, an airline that is bankrupt, a post office that does not work, a railway system that is in tatters. Fifty percent of this money has simply disappeared.

Debt is fantastic if it buys and secures our children’s and their children’s future. But we have nothing to show for this debt but junk. We need to put fear to work to ensure virtue prevails. I don’t mean arranging ourselves into herds and groups of destructive anarchists, but demanding our government once again understands that authority resides with citizens. Each one of us must put the fear back to work by demanding competence and spitting on corruption, thus making it easier for our fellow citizen to do likewise.

We broaden the smile of the nation by making our public servants fear our incorruptibility. What if we were simply to turn the tables and demand that all 400 incompetent clowns, dancing in fancy clothes and false airs and graces while we sweat and toil, pay back their R3.5bn share of our money they have simply flushed down the toilet?

They mock our sensibilities by listening to the management of Eskom demanding “the shareholder” take responsibility, hiding behind “the state”. The shareholders are the citizens of this fair land, you dupes; the state has no funds of its own. Trade unions threaten the government not to privatise Eskom, but we the people will not be held to ransom by those who build junk assets. The trade unions are robbing our children of their future, and we demand that only the most competent supply our energy in future.

Electronic Toll Collection CEO Coenie Vermaak threatens us with no more roads and a six-hour commute between Johannesburg and Pretoria if people don’t start paying toll fees. He should hire some former Scorpions and go find the billions that have been stolen from us citizens. He forgets: we have already paid, but the money was given away, stolen, lost or peed against some wall.

The issue was and is still: what have we learned from the experience?; where did we go wrong?; what did some players do intentionally or unintentionally that exacerbated the situation?; where lies the root of our problem? Can we change course and make a better future for our children? Politicians and their mad schemes come and go; we need to face the future knowing we have them safe inside a box, where they can do the least harm, otherwise we will continue to be victims of our own complacency.

It is time to reflect, take good measure and create something from the ashes, by understanding how virtue is created by an essential balance between fear and sympathy for our fellow humans.

• Glenister is a Johannesburg businessman who took the state to the Constitutional Court to ensure the Scorpions' successor, the Hawks, were sufficiently independent of the executive