Political contestation has lessons for all of us

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Prof Sipho Seepe 

National and regional elections in a proportional voting system are about gauging the depth of common and overlapping sentiments among voters. For example, the economy has been a central but ideologically contested issue; so too was the corruption and more importantly, whether the legal standards of corruption allegations, investigations or sanctions are appropriate.

The record number of political parties contesting this year’s national and provincial elections is an affirmation of the vibrancy of our democracy. It also shows that South Africa does not run short of ideas and leadership that is committed to ensuring that the democratic experiment remains alive.

It would seem that the electorate is no longer convinced of the winner takes it all approach. It is a poor mechanism for forging principled consensus and programmes for tackling the big structural legacy issues and testing different variations before making final choices.

The many parties, mostly regional, bring forward low-ranking issues seeking public and political attention; the voices shouting in the wilderness so to speak.

The many new parties, amidst on-going protests based on local social issues, indicates a cry for leadership that is seen by those at grassroots to have a practical programme to address challenges of infrastructure development, poverty, unemployment and equality.

The absence of rancour or minimal violence that accompanied the ferocious campaigning is a testament of the growing political tolerance within society and among political parties. The reported incidences of violence have been largely intra-party engineered. This indicates that the disagreements have been less about ideological orientation than about personal ambitions.

The seeming growth of the Democratic Alliance in black townships, as evidenced by a sea of blue that descended in Soweto, is a testament of the fact that struggle politics are giving way to new political thinking that is not linked to the past.

This should serve as a wake-up call to liberation movements such as the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania and the Azanian People’s Organization. These have relied heavily on their historical and political capital. The unmistakable message is that they should no longer labour under the notion that they own a black vote.

This shift should be seen not as a damnation of liberation movements but as a call for the forging of the unity of multiplicity of ideas that exist in our beloved country. It calls for leaders to harness the many policy proposals that have been advanced.

The mushrooming of new parties is also a credit to the ruling party as a liberation movement. This suggests that the ANC has been successful in cultivating a conducive environment in which such contestation is possible. At the same time, the fact that most of the new parties are its off-shoots is proof that the so-called broad church is not sustainable. In other words, the party can no longer manage the ideological strands within one roof.

This should be seen as liberatory as it allows each of the strands to grow independently and shape the political discourse without being subdued by a dominant strand within the broad church. In other words, the collapse of the broad church could help in forging multiplicity of perspectives in the public domain. This enables the electorate to have a rich menu to choose from.

There is also something humbling about such contestation. They serve to remind the victors that not all citizens think they are a God’s gift to mankind. Victory imposes an immediate responsibility for the leader of the party that has won. S/he needs to be magnanimous in victory by reaching out to opposition parties. Doing so ensures that contending ideas are not lost. The country’s problems are complex enough to require exploration of what is available.

Such a leader will take to heart the parting shot that the former President Nelson Mandela warned about. Mandela opined: “There is a heavy responsibility for a leader elected unopposed. He may use that powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, to marginalize or get rid of them and surround themselves with yes-men and women”.

Understood this way, coalition governments could prove to be veritable environments for greater political sophistication as they require of partners in the coalition to seek the most pragmatic path in dealing with challenges. Coalitions force partners to learn to hear and listen to each other’s point of view.

This attitude of mind demands a shift of mind from parties that are part of the opposition spectrum. Their role should not be limited to opposing every policy proposal by the ruling party but finding ways in which some of them may be improved. Doing so will elevate political engagements to mortal combat to dialogical encounters.

The political banter should not be limited to serving a narrow political agenda but should also serve the purpose of advancing public and national interests. Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s advice on the occasion of the first motion of no confidence against former President Jacob Zuma is still relevant.

“I accepted our President, warts and all, and pledged my personal support to ensure that he does not fail because the country cannot afford it.”

The patriotic duty of the opposition is not only to hold government accountable but also to ensure that it does not fail. Patriots cannot rejoice at failure. Any failure has dire material consequences for the poorest and the most disadvantaged of our people.

There are many lessons that could be derived from the conduct of the electorate. The most abiding is a call to embrace and engage the multiplicity of views. The second is to appreciate that these perspectives represent a constituency that wants to contribute to the body politic of society. True leadership starts with reaching out to those who did not support you or do not share your perspective.

Equally all parties have a nationalist duty to protect and advance the nation’s interest. This includes the shared interest of all the voters and more importantly, improve the quality of the state’s responses to these issues.

It is a pity that such tolerance of difference has not found expression among the intellectual class. These have tended to reduce themselves into mere purveyors of factional politics. They have accordingly soiled the national discourse.

Disappointingly, there are no younger aspirant leaders with fresher and new ideas that focus on the issues around the youth, hence apathy among this population section.

This lack of bold and new ideas, who should be galvanizing the energy among the youth, ala the Steve Bikos is probably a sign of how the nation has deteriorated in terms of intellectualism.

Prof Sipho Seepe
Political Commentator