Best and worst of times

2009-04-22 00:00

We have been saturated with lots of messages over the past couple of months. We have heard much. Our minds and hearts were challenged. We were drawn into action-packed parties and meetings. Hardly anyone who needed a party T-shirt failed to get one. Many have a collection of

T-shirts from different political parties. We witnessed politicians trade insults and speak sense. Many times, we got depressed and paranoid. But we also got very excited and hopeful again.

The simultaneous political rallies held by various parties last weekend marked a fitting highlight of the adrenaline-raising election period. Big rallies being held in various parts of the country simultaneously over a period of two days is unprecedented in South Africa. Even small parties drew larger-than-usual crowds to their rallies. It was an amazing engagement of citizens in active politics.

It is good that political parties made every effort to dislodge us from our comfort zones, and made us think about our country and feel our nation’s dreams. This is not an ordinary election. It is a barometer of the state of our democracy and the direction that it is going to take. Most young democracies come to a point — often within two decades — when they are tested, institutions are challenged and political cultures are redefined. This is a period often marked by latent public anger about inadequate freedom from want, expressing itself in protests and apathy. Out of this either the young democracy disintegrates (reversal) or consolidates (maturity).

Often on the African continent, this phase begins with challenges in the ruling party, which many scholars call “the crisis of expectations”. Where the ruling party suppressed internal conflict and avoided a rupture, it became a dictatorial juggernaut prone to using strong-arm tactics to maintain internal order, prevent dissent and present itself as a united organisation. There was no smooth change of leadership. This was the case with many liberation movements, the most obvious of which include Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, Angola’s MPLA, or even Sudan’s NCP. But where the dominant party allowed the internal crisis to resolve itself through a democratic process or in other peaceful ways, the party often experienced internal renewal and became a catalyst for democratic consolidation in broader society. This latter tendency re-energises a democracy. Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi is a good example of this.

Indeed, the exciting politics of the past couple of months began with troubles in the ruling ANC. These had to do with how the party has managed its leadership succession and thus its own maturity into a major player in South Africa’s maturing democracy. The big test was whether the ruling party would try to keep unity at all costs and avoid life-giving tensions or whether it would allow the internal conflict to sort itself out in a democratic fashion.

The ANC took the difficult route when, in 2005, Mzizi (Thabo Mbeki) fired Jacob Zuma, thus turning Zuma into a powerful internal platform for change, leading to the defeat of Mbeki in Polokwane and later his recall from office. In-between, there was a series of crises, which in turn generated a lot of anger and public interest in politics. Each of these occurrences, including the birth of pro-Mbeki Cope in 2008, helped spur public debates. I think alternative parties should have capitalised on this rather than merely celebrated the ANC’s troubles. As a boxer, you don’t laugh at an opponent suffering from a temporary loss of breath, but you capitalise on it and knock him out. They did not. By the time opposition parties woke up to this reality, the troubled ANC was re-emerging stronger than before.

Fortunately, the acrimony had not died down by the time electioneering began. This made the election period very exciting. Figuratively speaking, South Africa became both a war zone and a big party at the same time. We fought, but did not kill each other. We mirrored a scene in Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” We had all these and more.

We will emerge much stronger from this difficult phase in the history of our young democracy if citizens go all out to vote for a bright future and if political parties prepare to play a constructive role in consolidating our democracy once citizens have spoken one way or the other. It would be sad if any of us allowed the acrimony of the election period to continue after elections because we will use our energy to destroy or play rather than joining hands to build and defend our country more than ever. Your mark will take us to the best of all times. Vote!

• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is Director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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