Birthdays and anniversaries are treated as milestones for reflection by many people, so it’s no surprise that Freedom Day, 27 April 2014, South Africa’s looming 20th anniversary as a democracy has unleashed a barrage of commentary aimed at reflecting on the country’s development.

Debates are heightened by the fact that the momentous anniversary coincides with the country’s forthcoming 2014 general elections. It’s the 5th time that South Africans will go to the polls to vote in a general election, but the first time that the political playing field has been opened up so significantly with the arrival of a number of new political parties vying for the votes of a more hardened electorate. The ANC is not expected to surrender its position at the polls next year, but many expect that it will, to some degree, cede its wide margin of victory.

It’s well worth celebrating 20 years of life free from apartheid, but we must be careful not to conflate this celebration with triumphalist and misguided talk of achievement during our two decades of democracy.

This, unfortunately, is the spin coming out of the highest office in the land. One can expect to hear a lot about “20 years of achievement” from the ruling ANC in the run up to April 27, as I did in early October when I attended a consultation between government officials in the president’s office and representatives from civil society, convened, of course, to reflect on South Africa’s two decades of democracy.

Given this historic anniversary, the presidency has commissioned a range of papers to review 21 thematic areas related to South Africa’s development. These include, but are not limited to topics such as democracy and citizenship, non-racialism and social cohesion, spatial development, the judiciary, the economy, environment, employment, and so on.

In line with this review, civil society organisations, commonly known as NGOs, were summoned to the president’s office to discuss the state of civil society and its role in building South Africa’s democracy.

The first thing that struck me about the consultation was how poorly attended it was by representatives from civil society. A grand total of three NGOs, including SACSIS, made it to the consultation that was held in a stately, if somewhat jaded boardroom in the East Wing of the Union Building in Pretoria. Clearly the relationship between civil society and the state has reached a new low when the highest office in the country is unable to attract more than three NGOs to a meeting of such import.

The second thing that struck me about the consultation is that the framework for the discussion, led by officials in the president’s office, was presented with a decidedly positive outlook. The entire consultation was contained within a context of “achievement”. Challenges in the relationship between civil society and the state were casually glossed over. There was definitely a sense of “we don’t air our dirty laundry in public” atmosphere in the presidential boardroom.

It was amazing to witness first-hand the bizarre pantomime of officialdom where everyone pretends that things are going just swimmingly. One can only speculate as to whether the people working in the president’s office truly believe this myth of achievement that they’ve constructed for themselves. However, it does appear as if those who’ve been elevated to high office are cocooned in a bubble of denial.

And, it’s distressing to see how pervasive this view is in government.

Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan’s dressing-down of the media for negatively stereotyping the country, is a case in point. Towards the end of October, he cautioned that the media’s construction of a negative image of the country contributed to South Africa’s poor credit rating. Days later, according to a Business Day report, Minister Gordhan was admonishing South Africans for their gloominess again. In response to the release of Goldman Sachs’ 20-year review of South Africa, the minister complained that “there is too much despair” in the country. He called for South Africans to be “more optimistic”.

Why should we disguise the uncomfortable truths about our country with a more positive outlook?

Are the media expected to turn a blind eye when little girls are raped, murdered and flung into public toilets? How are the public supposed to react when they learn that a young women was disembowelled and left for dead by her rapist or that teachers simply looked on while a schoolboy was murdered before their very eyes? Worse, these teachers are now being defended by officials higher up in the chain of command.

Civilised societies protect their women and their children. But with each passing year of South Africa’s democracy, the violence against our most vulnerable has gotten worse.

These incidents are symptomatic of a deep social malaise directly linked to the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty and inequality in South Africa — a situation 20 years of democracy has not reversed. And it is South Africa’s leaders who must take principle responsibility for this dreadful state of affairs.

Yet it is abundantly clear that our political leaders are out of touch with the hardships of ordinary – especially poor – South Africans.

Take the recent case of Gauteng premiere, Nomvula Mokonyane. Her throwaway remark that the ANC doesn’t need the “dirty votes” of protesting community members in Bekkersdal, one of many impoverished communities in South Africa experiencing strife due to neglect and corruption, reveals much about the disconnect between the ruling elite and ordinary citizens. But there is also something else, something worse on display when our political leaders react so insensitively — it is their arrogance and hypocrisy.

New research reveals that people in positions of power are detached from the concerns of people with less social power.

American psychologist and journalist, Daniel Goleman, drew much attention with his October 2013 column in the New York Times, “Rich People Just Care Less”. In it he writes about people with economic, social and political power and the growing “empathy gap” between them and people with less social power. The condition is linked to rising economic inequality. It’s a growing global phenomenon that research is starting to expose. Commenting on the behaviour of American politicians Goleman argues, “The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare…may stem in part from the empathy gap.”

The “empathy gap” is a psychological trait that has huge implications for broader social problems. Goleman suggests the need to consider its consequences for public policy.

Many of South Africa’s political leaders today are not people who were historically born into privilege. However, it is evident that they have adjusted to the culture of the privileged and lost touch with those that they have left behind.

What should concern South Africans most about the occasion of our 20th anniversary as a democratic nation is the fact that our ruling elite has constructed a fictional reality of achievement and glory around the event for themselves. As we march towards a momentous anniversary, those in positions of power will no doubt seek to exploit the commemorative mood in the country. We all deserve to revel in this important celebration of freedom from apartheid, but we should, at the same time, be mindful not to let our political leaders impose their fiction of achievement on the rest of us.

Fazila Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service. 
This article has been published with permission from The South African Civil Society Information Service