During our transition to democracy, political scientists used to talk about “confidence-building mechanisms”. These were essentially political devices to give ordinary citizens a sense of confidence in what was happening in the course of changing regimes from apartheid to democracy.

White citizens needed a sense of security — and here the primary device was the numerous public acts of reconciliation for which SA is still known around the world. Black citizens needed a sense of justice — and to this end a most impressive array of laws and policies were generated promising reconstruction and development. At the time, the transition was bloody and the prospects for democracy far from assured. “Ready to govern” pronounced a pamphlet of the liberation movement turning itself into a political party.

The confidence of ordinary people was shattered this past week as public utility Eskom launched the country into darkness, again. It was not simply the impact on students preparing for examinations or the economy’s dependence on reliable flows of energy — it was the devastating effects on public confidence in the government. The airline, the Post Office, the rail system, the hospitals, the schools, the dams, the revenue services and home affairs — one crisis after the other as incompetence and corruption collapsed these vital services. It is clear but nobody wants to say the obvious: This government does not have the competence and the capacity to govern effectively. When the lights go off from one day to the next, confidence in government dips. What makes matters worse is the absence of leadership in the crisis. You wait in vain for the president to take to radio and television with the three simple messages that a good leader would convey in relation to almost any crisis. This is ...

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