It has been an interesting few days in South Africa following what is being referred to in the media as “the night of the long knives”. Protest marches have happened and more are being organised following a contentious decision by the president that has potentially disastrous effects for the country. A lot of people are speaking out against the choice the president has made; people within his own organisation are in open disagreement with him while opposition parties are calling on the courts to intervene.
The decision that was once just a thought in his mind has been implemented and now the dominoes are starting to fall with the first rating agency downgrading out credit rating today. Their final verdict: junk.
Some say the downgrade will only impact the rich, but unfortunately, we are not islands or ships passing each other by. Life is far more complicated and the economy way more intertwined. This will have consequences on ordinary South Africans. Untangling the impact of our president’s action is in a sense similar to untangling a ball of wool a kitten just played with. Only time will reveal the real impact.
So what now when you disagree with a decision a leader has taken? What can an ordinary citizen do? Very few people have the ear of the president or that of anyone close to him. Who can organise an audience to state their opinion?
I reflect back to the State of the Nation address a few months back. I was in the air at that moment, 30000 kilometres above ground and the low-cost carrier did not provide live streaming of events. I was seeing it through the eyes of journalists and my friends on social media. They reflected in their articles, footage and comments what they deemed important. So what did I see afterwards? Quite a rowdy session. Some of the opposition took an aggressive approach and got thrown out rather forcefully. Another opposition party walked out later. This was chalk and cheese compared to the budget speech by the minister of finance. There was vastly different behaviour by the opposition parties on that day. For sure they still asked tough questions, but their manner was orderly and respectful. There was not that much of a noticeable difference in the behaviour of the ruling party MPs (or maybe the cameras just chose to focus on the action of the other side of the room).
So I ask myself what the appropriate way to behave is. There are only 400 seats in the National Assembly. The statistics say there were 51.77 million South Africans in 2011. Only 0.00077% of the population are in the privileged position to influence proceedings in parliament. That is 1 in 129 426 people. That amount of people can more than twice fill Cape Town stadium.
So how do you behave if you are one of the select few who can influence matters of state? How do you conduct yourself when you differ on the business at hand? With privilege comes responsibility. You are representing the voices of 129 426 South Africans. Do you keep quiet and applaud even when you disagree? Do you disrupt proceedings to such an extent that you get forcefully removed? Do you walk out of proceedings to make clear your disagreement? Do you stay and try to influence change from the inside by challenging and confronting what you see?
Maybe let me take it down the level of ordinary people. We are all leaders in different spheres in our lives. Somewhere there is someone looking up to each of us.
When the organisation you work for acts corruptly or unjustly or bends the rules or laws, what do you do? Do you keep quiet and comply – maybe out of fear of losing your job? When you speak out and are not heard, do you stay and keep trying to influence matters or do you leave? Each of us will in the end do that what is aligned with our values and the principles we live by.
It sure looks to me that the principles and values lived by the minister of finance and his deputy got them fired. There is real risk when you speak out and challenge a person in leadership. But can you live with yourself not doing that?
The negative reports abound on media and social media. So what do we as ordinary South Africans do now? Do we mobilise as we are encouraged to do? Or would we rather stay in the comfort of our workplaces and homes?
Will our silence stop the dominoes?