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Verashni Pillay: Stop Hijacking Transformation To Avoid Accountability

Our politicians are decidedly selective about their radical moments, as Lumka Oliphant has revealed.

06/03/2017 19:05 SAST | Updated 07/03/2017 16:08 SAST

Is there anything more cynical than hijacking a crucial issue like transformation to evade questions over corruption?

Our politicians have long made a habit of doing precisely that.

Tackling the growing problem of corruption and state capture, or slow service delivery, is hard work.

It must be said here that the ANC is filled with hard-working men and women who have really tried to make a difference. And the ANC in government has done so, despite the problems that have increasingly bedevilled the organisation. Their numbers on delivering electricity, water, healthcare and housing during the party's 23 years in power is no mean feat and shows a commitment at some level to the poor.

But of course all that has been overshadowed by how much has gone so wrong in the organisation.

So it has been par for the course, for a while now, for politicians to focus much of their energies on racism and transformation. It's an easier topic to tackle than the shameful state capture and rent seeking that has become par for the course, or the complexities that slow down service delivery and reducing inequality.

Tackling racism and transformation is much easier: it's an issue with clear wrongs and rights — and those in government can comfortably come out on the side of what is right and true while decrying an amorphous enemy who is entrenching the opposite.

It's a bit more nuanced than calling one's detractors racist — though that happens often enough. And it's not as blatant as President Jacob Zuma's latest noises about "radical economic transformation" which takes aim at the newly popular phrase "white monopoly capital". This campaign dovetails with a comprehensive, well-planned paid Twitter and fake news campaign doing the same, and particularly aimed at attacking the South African banks who have made it difficult for the notorious Gupta family, linked to the president, from doing business in South Africa. This is cynicism writ large.

Those acting out this phenomenon on a lesser scale are certain ANC-affiliated government officials I encounter as a journalist. They are smart people who clearly feel the sting of the rapid deterioration of their once-principled movement. They may be drawn into discussing the difficult issues plaguing the movement but they are far more eloquent and at ease bitterly decrying largely white business and racism in South Africa, blaming both for the lack of transformation in our country where white South Africans still enjoy a disproportionate amount of control over the economy and larger wealth than their black counterparts.

That racism and a lack of transformation is a problem in South Africa is blindingly obvious. Discussions in South Africa on this score have become increasingly urgent.

Government officials and politicians are of course a crucial voice in this debate, particularly if they could explain to us how they are using their formidable power to tackle it.

But instead it has become the norm to reference these issues when evading accountability as asmokescreen for the issue at hand.

This is exactly what Department of Social Development spokesperson Lumka Oliphant did on Monday.

Oliphant's department is in crisis and it is dragging the rest of South Africa along with it. Roughly 17-million grants to the most vulnerable South Africans are imperilled thanks to her political principal Bathabile Dlamini's near-farcical bungling of a distribution contract.

No one is clear how these critical grants will reach their recipients come April 1 and there is a level of hysteria surrounding the issue for South Africans — rightly so.

Talking to 702 talkshow host Xolani Gwala in the morning following the crisis over grant payments, Oliphant continued a trend set by Dlamini and herself of being absolutely dismissive of the media. She refused to speak in English on the English-medium show, opting to speak in Zulu instead despite Gwala's objections.

She was, it appeared, taking a stand for our neglected African languages. At a very convenient moment.

The moment represented the peak of this phenomenon: cynically jumping onto a legitimate issue and hijacking it to evade accountability.

Our politicians are decidedly selective about their radical moments.