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2014-05-14 10:00

In a heart-warming moment hailed as proof of South African exceptionalism, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma sat side by side on a stage at the Union Buildings in May 2009.

Heart-warming because the three previous presidents of a democratic South Africa were there to witness the inauguration of the nation’s fourth head of state. This was special because it is a rarity on our continent for successive presidents to line up together like that.

In many instances, predecessors would have been killed, jailed or driven into exile in coups and revolutions. The ritual of an orderly handover of power through elections and inclusive inaugurations has become part of us.

The fact that the presidents all came from the same party and that Motlanthe’s presidency had followed the not-so-sweet removal of Mbeki did not matter. What mattered was that everything had always happened according to our constitutional book.

In some other countries, the coup plotters were the right-hand men of the presidents. It is also worth noting that FW de Klerk, the last apartheid president, was also a guest of honour.

This month we are busy with that ritual once more. Beginning with Wednesday’s elections, Parliament and the legislatures will elect a president and premiers over the next few weeks.

New Cabinets will be formed. There will be pomp and ceremony at the inaugurations. This beautiful month-long ritual will remind us that we are a free people with the right to determine our future and the type of country we want to live in.

If that future is one of a country where we will be governed by a corruptible individual who will use his second term to further feather his nest, that is our choice. The majority made that choice, arguing that the individual in question leads a party that has improved their lives.

If that future is also of one of a country with a vigorous and unfettered opposition that holds power to account and offers an alternative future government, that is our choice too. Millions made that choice, believing that it would keep the dominant party in check and offer a chance of a change in government in the not-too-distant future.

The fact that the campaign preceding this week’s elections was the most ferocious and ugliest yet has been much commented on. It was characterised by vicious personal attacks, ­race-baiting and scaremongering. After listening to the sniping on the campaign trail, refuge in Donetsk in Ukraine seemed appealing.

But we should not have worried about that.

Election periods are intemperate times. They bring out the worst in politicians who, in most instances, are bottom feeders anyway.

On the campaign trail they speak and behave like the late strip king Lolly Jackson’s clientele?–really, really badly.

Like Jackson’s customers (not that I have seen them in action, I have just heard about their behaviour), they forget that there is a next day.

That in itself is okay. They are allowed to. Elections the world over are characterised by such behaviour. It is grist to the mill.

The problem arises the next morning when they fail to recognise that the previous night’s rowdy behaviour was just meant for Jackson’s joint and should only be repeated on the next visit to the establishment.

What will therefore be required of our politicians in the coming months is to put the aggressive animosity of the election campaign behind them. They must now get on with playing their roles in the governance of our good republic as if last night never happened.

Politicians should be free to use language and have attitudes that are tough and sometimes rough. The opposition should be robust in holding the governing party to account and the latter will have every right to be equally robust in its defence. But these engagements should also be civil and constructive.

Politicians should not forget they lead a country that is still in its construction phase and polarising talk can throw us backwards.

Governing party legislators, in particular, should keep reminding themselves that the role of Parliament is to be the voice of the people of South Africa and not a rubber stamp for head office decisions.

On a darker note, it is shameful that political violence, intimidation and intolerance are still factors in our electoral politics. By now, the terms ‘election hot spots’ and ‘no-go areas’ should only be found in archives.

The other dark note is the role of the SABC strongmen, whose obeisance to the ANC imperils the free functioning of the public broadcaster.

Hats off to the SABC’s editorial staff for standing up for sound journalism when the “deployee” bosses wanted otherwise. These are issues that we should have put behind us by the time we get to our sixth elections.

For now, let us appreciate this moment with its attendant rituals and look forward to five more years of wonderful presidential entertainment.

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