Public should engage in political affairs

Colleague Dudu Busani-Dube tells an interesting story. She went out on the streets of Johannesburg last Sunday to hear what ordinary South Africans thought of President Jacob Zuma's love child.

Dudu says an extraordinary number of people declined to comment on the issue. Very few were willing to have their names and faces in the paper talking about the number one citizen.

Dudu's observations are not out of the ordinary. South Africans are gradually drifting away from the public space. We no longer want to engage. Civil society in general is silent. Those who ordinarily tell men Yenza Kahle; the gender movement and traditionalists alike, have opted to pretend that nothing has happened.

Their silence has helped apologists of this sorry state of affairs to create a self-deluding picture that it is the media and not the people of South Africa who are outraged by the revelations of the circumstances surrounding the president's 20th child.

It is under these conditions that the media are called "brave" or reactionary when they do what their colleagues in open and democratic societies all over the world do as a matter of routine - place public representatives under scrutiny and ask some tough questions about their conduct. But we should not let the embarrassment Zuma has visited on the country go to waste. There are lessons aplenty going forward.

One of the first lessons should be that ordinary citizens should reclaim their rights and voice to express ourselves in public and political affairs. This right is no less than what the ruling party and its members were willing to die and kill for - long before some juveniles wanted to do so for some individuals.

We should remember that public representatives work for and are accountable to us, and not the other way round.

We should avoid the mistake that many of those who sought to defend Zuma thought that the public outrage was about him when it was really about the office he holds.

Zuma's supporters and defenders cannot have it both ways. They cannot demand of everyone else to respect the office of the president and believe that the incumbent has no similar responsibilities to that office.

The dignity of this office should survive any incumbent. Our expectations of it should be the same even after Jesus has come and the ANC is no longer in power - if the president's prediction proves true.

We have to ask at this point of our democracy what it is that public representatives owe those they represent? It is not enough to argue, as some have, that we owe the head of state respect. That is a given. What we need to ask the head of state is what, if anything at all, is it that he thinks he owes those who elected him.

Does a ruling party owe its first loyalty to the people it leads or its leader? And when other than in terms of constitutional requirements is it permissible for the public to ask that a head of state must step down?

We have to ask these questions not because we like or dislike an incumbent president but because we care about our state more.

We have to refuse to believe that there are things we are "allowed" to say and those that we are not. Twenty years after what was the watershed speech of February 2, 1990, there should still be many of us who remember the bitter taste of bondage to voluntarily shackle and gag ourselves.

We cannot survive PW Botha, Magnus Malan and Louis le Grange and cow before Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, however fiery their rhetoric might sound. That is not what the heroes of our struggle fought for.

We cannot afford to be silent. To misquote Greek philosopher Plato: The price of indifference and fear in public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.