A letter to political leaders

2009-03-15 00:00

This letter is not a pretext for yet another church man seeking space and fortune in South African party politics. Nor is it a pretext for endorsing any particular political party or political leader. Unlike Helen Zille’s recent “Open Letter to Jacob Zuma”, this is not a letter to a single political leader, but to all of you, Helen Zille included.

As a Christian and an African, I regard politics as an important arena in which to contest, imagine, deconstruct and construct, shape and reshape the crucial issues relating to our coexistence. In this sense, the cliché that says politics are far too important to be left to politicians is correct.

And yet I do not put my ultimate faith in any political system, political party or political leader, now, here or anywhere. All political parties, leaders and systems are temporary custodians — mere tools — in our hands and ultimately in the hands of God.

Though I should be delighted to see many Christians approaching and evaluating politics from the point of view of their faith, I shall not put my faith even in those political leaders who are Christian, including those who trade on their Christianity.

In and of itself, the presence of priests in political parties — regardless of whether that priest is called Kenneth Meshoe, Mvume Dandala or Jacob Zuma — adds no automatic or special value to the politics of our country.

I am worried that given the perceptions of glamour, power and wealth associated with politics spanning the past 15 years, South Africa’s political arena has become a magnet for all manner of people whose ambition is to use politics as a shortcut to fame and influence; those whose main (if not only) interest is their own ascendancy and acquisition of power.

As a proud South African, I worry about the nature of politics emerging in my beloved country.

Increasingly, ours has become what French scholar Jean-Francois Bayart termed la politique du ventre — the politics of the stomach.

We have witnessed with shock and horror as the politics of the stomach have played themselves out in Parliament through the practice of floor-crossing. It is my suspicion that these politics may, until now, constitute the only possible explanation for why one of the first acts of our first democratic government was to negotiate and eventually sign the arms deal. My suspicions can, of course, be laid to rest if our next president will institute the commission of inquiry on the arms deal that so many of us have called for.

In the battle for the hearts and souls of South Africans, I have observed the ascendancy of a culture of “disgrace politics” rather than the “politics of affirmation”. In cahoots with certain elements in the media we have observed how politicians have effected what some have called the “tabloidisation of South African politics”. Week in and week out, we have been served dirt and scandal about politicians and those political parties earmarked for “elimination by disgrace”. I have observed with dismay as they denigrate, despise and insult one another under the pretext of robust politics. With many fellow South Africans, I refuse to accept this as the politics that defines my country and my people. I call on the politicians to begin to charter a path of politics based not merely on affirmation, but also on persuasion.

I lose sleep over the increment of incendiary and irresponsible language — from the leaders of virtually all so-called major political parties. I am unable to understand the logic that informs such recklessness. There is no doubt in my mind that South Africans will neither be swayed nor cowed by such language, but it has the potential to plunge our country into the abyss of strife and violence.

Along with millions of South Africans, I have been horrified at how some political leaders, following incidencts of violence and intolerance, move to apportion blame on supporters of the “other” party. My heart is saddened by the lack of will to condemn unequivocally all incidents of political intolerance.

I note with concern the extent to which the poor and the vulnerable are slowly receding from the radars of your political programmes and manifestoes. Many of you appear to speak about poverty as if it exists on its own; as if it is not flesh-and-blood people who are actually poor.

In these elections, South Africans are crying out for leadership. Almost all politicians appear to operate on, and around, the notion of a single and strong leader. Such leaders are often artificially imbued with moral and superhuman qualities. But this model of leadership has not been successful. What happened to communal leadership? What happened to servant leadership? What happened to ubuntu leadership?

I have heard much talk recently about morality and moral leadership. But I have seen and heard little to substantiate these notions. South Africans will not be misled, again, with false, narrow and individualistic notions about morality and sin. We want to experience the moral stature of structures, policies, processes and politicians’ collective leadership.

When rural children pillage cow dung to find food, that is a moral issue.

When people living with the HI virus die needlessly and prematurely because of political bungling and lack of will, that is a moral issue.

When South Africans cannot sleep in their own homes for fear that criminals can plunder, rape and kill, that is a moral issue.

When some become filthy rich while millions are still waiting to cash the 1994 cheque of democracy, that is a moral issue.

When the burden of caring for the poor is shifted to the poor themselves, that is a moral issue.

This is what South Africans understand about morality.

I know that South Africans will vote some of you politicians into power on April 22. Please do not misread its meaning. South Africans will not be giving you a blank cheque; they will be entrusting you with a temporary and conditional sub-letting permit in order for you to become the political custodians of this beautiful southern-most tip of Africa. Please do not play games with their dreams and hopes.

• Professor Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is president of the SA Council of Churches and executive director for research at Unisa. This “open letter” is an edited address to a prayer breakfast for members of the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature.

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