Political spring has not arrived

2010-09-07 00:00

SPRING is here. Flowers have started to blossom and grass is greening. The weather is warming up. The summer promises to be good for outdoor activities.

With violent strikes, protests and political discourses, our national politics continues to swing ferociously from a harsh winter of embarrassing rhetoric and personalised political speak to summer storms that characterise relations between the state and portions of civil society. A spring season of hope and mature public discourse does not seem likely in the near future.

Democracy experts outside South Africa see this turbulence as a fertile climate for the emergence of new ideas, experimentation and political innovation necessary for democratic consolidation. In established democracies, serious conflicts provide conditions that political innovators can take advantage of.

But for us this is just cruel weather we want to pass, so that we can have a normal country too. It turns out that the calm that prevailed during the World Cup was temporary. We have seen one of the worst onslaughts on our constitutional democracy with strikers thinking that their anger justifies denying the sick and frail access to health facilities. Not only is the strike accompanied by intimidation and violence, but union leaders have failed to show political maturity. Their rhetoric is worse than that which sometimes comes from youth formations. They have helped turn the strikes into everything that constitutes vulgar politics.

Our future leaders, especially in black areas, are being denied access to their education by rowdy adults who chase teachers and pupils out of centres of learning. Put simply, unionised teachers have decided that their current circumstances are grave enough to squander the future of innocent young citizens and young South Africa itself.

There should be no sympathy for the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). Its spokesperson, Ronald Nyathi, was on camera telling thousands of Sadtu members in Soweto that “any school that stays open is declaring war on 1,3 million [public servants] ... we will crush you because we are many”. He went on to say they will disrupt any such schools, whether private or public.

Indeed, the union has degenerated into an extremist platform more focused on strategies for disrupting education than improving the oldest profession and the plight of teachers. It is a disgrace that my esteemed first profession has such poor leadership.

Indeed, the government could have acted better to avert the unleashing of barbarism that we have seen in the past three weeks. The early announcement that the offer of seven percent and a R650 housing subsidy was final and was to be implemented unilaterally, was ill-advised and a premature use of power play.

The years immediately after an election where there were clear and undisputed victors should normally be quiet as the focus shifts to implementation of electoral promises and debates over matters of governance and public goods.

But in South Africa, we have not had a break after a very difficult period from 2005 to 2009. The winds of spring that blew after the 2009 elections have subsided, giving way to a return in many areas to old gutter politics of rhetoric, power mongering and corruption. It is happening in the North West, Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.

With local government elections in 2011 and the public servants’ strike set to continue for longer than anticipated, the onset of spring in our national politics is not imminent. Like all 15-year-old teenagers, petulance and fragility seem to be a permanent state of our being as a young democracy.

These can only be turned into positive impulses to re-energise our politics and force us to generate new ideas in order to overcome our problems if cool heads come together to think through these challenges. Unfortunately, there is very little structured thinking about this currently happening in academic circles, among think tanks, in business and among public officials.

The danger is that what should be a temporary season of turbulence may very well become a permanent feature of our body politic. If that happens, our democracy will be seriously harmed and all sectors of society will lose.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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