The most hopeful image I've encountered of a vibrant democratic society is that of bumper cars. Recall the colourful little cars we rode around as children at fairs and amusement parks, joyfully bumping into each other. The wonderful thing about bumper cars is that when they collide they bounce off each other without any damage to the car or injury to the driver. Bumper cars colliding with each other seems like the perfect image of a society in which there is difference of opinion and varieties of ambitions that are dealt with constructively through contestation, rather than aggression. This contestation, a vital tenet of active political life of a society, occurs in debates and negotiations around ideas, positions and policies.
But what keeps the bumper cars from causing damage to each other and possible injury to the drivers? Of course, it is the thick rubber bumper around the car. To me, these rubber bumpers represent respect in a democratic society. Not respect of authority or merely respect of an office, but respect of one human by another. Just as without these rubber bumpers the cars would smash into each other violently, so a society without respect reduces to violent chaos.
This is exactly what we witnessed in our National Assembly last week during the State of the Nation address (SONA). The chaos that we witnessed – screaming, swearing, punches thrown, pepper spray used and MPs being dragged out to the applause of other MPs – is an indication that our political leaders have lost respect not only for each other but for us as the society and for our democratic institutions. What we witnessed at SONA is a breakdown of a fundamental tenet of a democratic society, that of orderly and constructive contestation. Rather that contest ideas we are contesting each other. They demonstrated that they have lost the ability to listen to each other and speak to each other let alone contest important ideas and issues that serve the good of our nation.
The Bill of Rights in our Constitution states that "Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected" – this is so fundamental to how we engage with each other, more fundamental than rules and laws. Without this respect our laws and constitution are empty.
Yet there is a disturbing circular causality to this loss of respect. On the one hand, the disrespect shown by our leaders influences how we as citizens interact with each other and on the other hand what we witnessed at Sona reflects the state of disrespect already within our society.
In a society where we see the dignity in each other and respect each other's humanity, economic inequality would be so repugnant that it would jolt all of us into action to eradicate it rather than get mired in debates about the levels of inequality and what actions are required.
There is a worrying trend of intolerance and growing anger in South Africa. What we saw in the National Assembly we also see on our streets, on social media and in political discourse. At times it seems that everyone is angry at everyone else, often for different reasons. We see this in the staggering levels of person-to-person crime. We see it in the escalation of racist outbursts.
Rather than build the bridges across the divides, as we would expect of our political leaders, they are further wedging open these cracks. That our political leaders are behaving in this way should trouble us deeply because it is extremely dangerous. There is a danger that disrespect for ideas degrades into disrespect for persons and further deteriorates into disrespect for lives and rule of law. We cannot allow this to happen.
Much of our growing conflict is divisive and we seem to create fewer opportunities to build bridges across these divides. One of these divisive lines is the real issue of economic inequality. However, inequality is not our biggest issue, disrespect is. In a society where we see the dignity in each other and respect each other's humanity, economic inequality would be so repugnant that it would jolt all of us into action to eradicate it rather than get mired in debates about the levels of inequality and what actions are required.
This issue of respect for others merely because they are human, is something every South African needs to consider. Do you recognise and respect others' humanity? You don't have to respect their behaviour but unless we respect each other as fellow humans we have little hope for building a society in which we all can thrive. Perhaps we need a declaration of respect that acknowledges the dignity and humanity of every person. Perhaps MPs need to be reminded of our Bill of Rights, perhaps the use of the term "Honourable" in addressing each other needs to be taken seriously.
Sona demonstrated clearly a worrying aspect of our society, this growing intolerance and the inability to respectful deal with our differences. Our bumper cars are working perfectly well and bumping into each other as they should but the destruction of the bumpers of respect is now causing the cars to smash into each other violently. This is dangerous for our democracy and dangerous for our society. The bumpers need urgent repair.