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Luthuli House in Johannesburg. Picture: THULANI MBELE
Luthuli House in Johannesburg. Picture: THULANI MBELE

In a move that will revolutionise SA’s justice system and bring considerable relief to criminals everywhere, human settlements minister Mmamoloko Kubayi on Monday argued that if you stab someone in the head and grab their wallet, you can’t be prosecuted for attempted murder or armed robbery because it was your fingers, rather than you, committing the crime.

At least, that was the clear inference as Kubayi told Clement Manyathela on Radio 702 that the ANC wasn’t responsible for wrecking Eskom, but that “individuals” in the ANC might have been involved.

To be fair, it wasn’t a particularly original variation on the theme of buck-passing we’ve been hearing since before the local government elections in 2021, whereby the ANC insists that it is the government while simultaneously insisting that it can’t be expected to do any actual governing.

It was also entirely the sort of thing you’d expect from the person who thought the best way to keep the country’s tourism industry alive during Covid-19 was to exclude white-owned businesses from government bailouts.

At that point of the 702 interview, however, Kubayi got into an intellectual tangle: having revealed to Manyathela her belief that fingers are not connected to a brain, she suddenly warned that now was “not the time to point fingers”, surely a completely innocent act given that the finger-pointer doesn’t know what their digits are doing or why.

If all of this sounds like a small and wretched story to focus on in the week that we mark the anniversary of our democratic transition, well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

If you’re like me, you understand the significance of April 27. In your quieter moments, you wonder where you might be now if the apartheid regime had decided to fight it out. You remember the energising fragility of 1994. You reflect on how little you knew about anything.

Yes, you feel the necessity and power of a monument like Freedom Day. But as the years pass, it feels more and more like an annual invitation to reflect on missed chances and tragic neglect. Ornamental gardens are weeds. Plaques have been peeled away and sold for scrap. And across every inch of the marble, the same graffiti has been scrawled, over and over again: “OUR TURN TO EAT”.

The history of the end of apartheid is still contentious. Some credit the liberation movement, led by the ANC. Others make geopolitical and economic arguments about the 1985 default or the end of the Cold War.

What is common cause, however, is that the eventual inheritors of that process — a generation of politicians made arrogant and indifferent by job security and immense wealth — have smeared their crude, limited selves all over its monument.

Unfortunately, this is not something that can be scrubbed clean in a week. The ANC and Freedom Day are inextricably bound together, which means that two decades of passive neglect or active sabotage by the party have left an indelible stain on the very idea of democratic freedom in SA.

No wonder populists and autocrats are making gains, however small, on the political centre. No wonder I see more and more people on social media asking whether it might be worth sacrificing certain freedoms in exchange for reliable electricity and safer streets.

One obvious intervention would seem to be voter education, a process whereby young people are taught about the ideals and values of democracy in the abstract, and gently reassured that democracy doesn’t automatically involve wholesale looting or sheltered employment for people like Kubayi.

The trouble is, it’s the ANC doing the educating.

On Monday, the Department of Extremely Basic Education tweeted about a new campaign of voter education, organised with the Electoral Commission of SA and aimed, one assumes, at schoolchildren.

Certainly, three of the four infographics in the tweet described activities to educate children about the past and the present.

But the fourth said it all.

Instead of providing a brief and cheerful summary of the power of democracy, explaining to teenagers that their vote is a way to demand a better future from public servants, it simply read: “The lethargy and despondence among youth to register to vote is in fact a passive-aggressive demonstration of taking the right to vote for granted.”

Angie Motshekga’s ministry has a long tradition of forcing children to shoulder the consequences of its systemic failures, but adding this much insult to the usual injury is simply outrageous.

It’s also a lie. If young people are disengaging from democratic processes, it’s not because they’re spoilt or throwing a tantrum. It’s because they have simply looked around them. Having known no government but this one, they have come to the very sensible and logical conclusion that democracy is a system that puts Motshekga and Blade Nzimande in charge of their educations, Fikile Mbalula in charge of their transport, and nobody in charge of keeping the lights on.

I hope that they eventually forget those names, and that the monument is slowly cleaned and becomes lovely again. I hope that, for the teenagers of today, the last 30 years fade into little more than a confusing chapter in their grandchildren’s textbooks; an inevitably messy and rancorous interregnum, out of which something more mature and benevolent came.

I hope that the names of people like Mmamoloko Kubayi are entirely forgotten, so that Freedom Day can be remembered.

• Eaton is an Arena Holdings columnist.

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