Most of us like a simple answer to a simple question, but history and society and politics always fail to oblige the closer you look at them.
Wars are not explained by a single cause and especially not by the fancy that they are fought between good guys and bad guys. In 2014 ‘the Hun’ is no longer solely blamed for the Great War a century ago and ‘oil’ does not supply the single motive for great power intervention in the Middle East it did just a few years back.
Once upon a time, a Jewish homeland in Palestine was not the crime against humanity some say it as now, but a long overdue effort to show some humanity to the Jewish people; the Ukraine and Tibet expose the one-sidedness of the charge of ‘the imperial west’; Africa’s and the world’s lived experience of socialism sinks its claim to be the solution to the ‘evils of capitalism’. There is no Happy Ending in the real world. The most disastrous idea human beings can have is that a heaven on earth is possible.
Coming down to earth, then, and closer to home, are we right to frame our questions and answers as simply as we do? Are the DA really a bunch of white racists and rented blacks? Is President Zuma a ruthless tyrant destroying the constitution to stay out of jail? Once he leaves office, will all be well? These are popular assertions, common beliefs.
How often does a comment or article begin: “I hold no brief for Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters, but ...” and then follows a brief for Mr Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters that presents them as the only chance we have of overcoming poverty and power.
In the search for a simple answer everyone can agree with, a handful of commentators dig a little deeper and discover a general lack of accountability in South African society. Accountability becomes the panacea. We must all become accountable.
Lack of accountability, we are told, accounts for why the arms deal is not properly investigated. It is the reason the Public Protector has trouble getting her findings to stick. Members of the ANC, and those connected, enjoy preferential treatment all because of the lack of accountability.
But when will the party elite, conscious as they are of the graft and corruption and waste of taxpayers' money, find themselves lacking in accountability? When will the ANC, indistinguishably both party and government, move beyond 'calling for' an end to abuses of power, when they were returned to power on the promise to end them?
It will be when people realise lack of accountability is not the sickness but a symptom.
In SA one party controls the state. The ANC constitute the executive and subordinate the legislature by appointing the majority of the legislators. The party staffs administrative posts, influences the law’s sanctions, determines preferment and punishes apostasy.
Call it a party dominant democracy or an effective one-party state. Whatever term we use, the majority of SA’s people at present do not find they have - or choose not to vote for - a political alternative. As a result, a hegemonic ANC, under no real threat of losing power, has no compelling reason to initiate change.
Not only that. For leadership to attempt a far-reaching clean-up, or adopt a strong policy line, risks a split, the last thing any in the ruling party will risk. The drift is towards inaction and inefficiency and an authoritarian response to dissent, developments long ago obvious in neighbouring
and, to some minds, begun
in SA under former president Thabo Mbeki and merely gathering pace now. Zimbabwe
One-party rule is radically unaccountable and unresponsive. It cannot be fully offset by a free media, by the courts and Chapter 9 institutions, by churchmen’s prayers for people's moral regeneration, or by idealistic calls for South Africans 'to all pull together’. Indeed, as disillusion with the ANC spreads, such calls appear to be giving way to enthusiasm for the dubious methods of its rowdy offspring, the EFF.
There is no simple answer to the new SA’s problems: they require a democratic society to underpin the institutions that are already in place and not honoured. That is not imposed from the top down. A democratic society emerges from the bottom up, through slow changes in people that are not simply explained in historical, social or political terms.