The dull tune of a one-man band

2014-12-21 15:00

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Over the past 20 years, I have stayed away from joining any political party. The problem is I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut.

From the moment a question enters my mind, it somehow has to find its way through my mouth and out into the world. But more seriously, it is almost predictable how political parties are likely to disappoint.

A great deal has to do with what German sociologist and fascist Robert Michels called the “iron law of oligarchy” – the tendency for bureaucratic centralisation of power in the hands of a few individuals.

Nelson Mandela could do no wrong and Thabo Mbeki was the ‘philosopher king’ we followed to the precipice. Picture: Oryx Media Archive/Benny Gool

This is the foundational malady behind our public policy failures, whether we are talking about HIV/Aids, the arms deal, the failing public sector or educational institutions. Too often, we have allowed one individual – either Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki or Jacob Zuma – to be the sum total of our collective imagination.

In fact, we stopped the kind of collective imagination that was the hallmark of our struggle, and the hallmark of successful nations. Instead, we have delegated authority upwards to corrupt politicians.

This deference to authority has allowed for some of the most bizarre policy outcomes. With Mandela, it was that the “great man” could not possibly be wrong; not after spending that much time in jail.

With Mbeki, it was that the “philosopher king” we had been waiting for had finally arrived, even if it meant following him over the cliff.

We are now told that Zuma deserves a R246?million house because?...?err?...?he is the president.

By the way, this malady is not confined to the ANC. All of the opposition parties are just one man or one woman bands.

The black consciousness movement is represented by a handful of organisations, all organised around one individual or the other. Some of them make me recoil with embarrassment when they speak in Steve Biko’s name – embarrassed not for them, but for Biko.

If you were looking in from Mars, you would be hard-pressed to find any policy differences between Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement, Themba Godi’s African People’s Convention and Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi’s National Freedom Party.

When the Economic Freedom Fighters was formed a year ago, I predicted what is happening today – that with the kind of individual personalities on display, the thing was going to blow up sooner rather than later.

People do not change just because they get into red overalls or Parliament, or even into the Union Buildings. As American political scientist Richard Neustadt put it: “Choose your president carefully because at the end of the day, no one can save him from himself.”

We must put anyone who puts up their hand for leadership under the greatest scrutiny. I have made my fair share of mistakes over the past couple of decades in trying to figure out the kind of leader this country needs.

I will venture yet again and say the more I look at the cast of characters around, the more former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe looks like the kind of person who could lead such a movement.

He strikes me as above the self-interest that typifies many of our would-be leaders. But more than just individual leaders, the new movement would need to answer at least three questions before I would sign up, and I am presumptuous enough to suggest that answers to these questions are not far from the minds of many South Africans who are just as desperate for a new vision as I am.

First, how do we know that once in government, the new group will not start the very pilfering of public resources they are now complaining about?

In short, what is the character of the people who will run this movement and form a new government?

Can we get a public declaration that they will live their lives in the way Julius Nyerere lived his as president of Tanzania for all those decades? He did not see a need for salaries or shiny new cars.

Can they really lead a national conversation in this country about the things we value above and beyond the bling that leads so many of our politicians to be corrupt? Will they put education for all and social equality front and centre of their agenda?

Second, will they be tolerant of diverse viewpoints? For example, I am not a socialist. I am not a capitalist either. But I also know what a good public school or hospital looks like. I can make a distinction between a public broadcaster that is nothing but a joke and one that does its job (I have in mind America’s PBS or the UK’s BBC for that matter).

I know that people need good jobs and our communities need effective policing, and that too many of our people go without the services that many others in the world take for granted.

Surely, I don’t have to be schooled in Marxism to know that these things must be done.

Thirdly, economic concepts such as socialism or nationalisation cannot possibly capture the complexity of human desires, particularly the quest for meaning and identity among black people.

The great African intellectual Tiyo Soga articulated this complexity way back in 1865: “The deeds of a nation are bigger than its cattle, its money and its food?…?did we not have nations? Where is its history? Where are its customs, both good and bad? Where are the views of past chiefs? Did we not have poets and who were they praising? Where is the history?”

In other words, these are the things that give meaning to people. Biko would say the same thing, just more than 100 years later. Material poverty is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty, it kills.

This is the psychosocial agenda that has been absent for the past 20 years.

Finally, this country is full of young people brimming with ideas – in the arts, in science and in digital technology. Many of these young people do not belong to political parties, and are unlikely to show up at the next branch meeting.

Will the new leaders continue with the corrupt culture of favouring feckless party loyalists, family members and friends, or will they have the political maturity and intellectual imagination to tap into the creative promise of these young people?

The choice is clear, comrades: oligarchy for the few or egalitarianism for the many.

I am sure that’s enough for the new United Front leadership to chew on for now.

I’ll be back soon with another set of questions.

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