'The gap between govt and us'

2008-09-29 12:35
Steven Friedman

Some time after the next election, we will begin to gain a clearer sense of where the choices of political leaders will take us over the next ten years.

The signs suggest that the in-fighting in the ANC has alienated many voters. But South Africans are far more loyal to parties than citizens of many other new democracies and so it seems likely that the ANC will still win next year with a large majority. Much will depend on how its leaders interpret this.

They may decide that they don't have too worry much about retaining voter support. In that case, the bickering and jockeying for power we have seen this year will continue into the decade, largely paralysing the governing party.

This will affect citizens less than some people seem to think. The war talk we have heard this year is sparked by internal ANC battles, not by a desire to impose the ANC's plans on everyone else. This means that continued ANC in-fighting may well leave the rest of us (whether or not we vote ANC) to our own devices.

If this happens, businesses, the professions and other parts of our social and economic life will face far less government interference than many expect. But this license to continue business as usual may be very costly in time, because it will mean that our pressing problems will not be addressed.

Government and the society

Our high levels of poverty and the many social challenges we face - in education and health, to name the two most obvious examples - mean that, if we stand still, we will slowly go backwards. This is the likeliest cost of continued government by a ruling party concerned more with its internal battles for power and position than with addressing society's problems.

But this is not the only possible ANC reaction to next year's election. Its leadership may recognise that the governing party has alienated many supporters and that, if people do continue to vote for it in large numbers, this is only because many feel they have no alternative.

And, if leaders draw this conclusion, they may well start to deal with the biggest problem which has afflicted our politics in recent years - the gap between the government and the society.

When we look back a decade from now, we may realise that the lesson of the Mbeki years was that it does not matter how many smart, university educated, people are in government, nor does it matter how many technical experts the government has, but if government is out of touch with the key actors in society and with grassroots citizens, then whatever it tries will not work.

All governments need citizens to work with them if they are to achieve their goals - governments also cannot serve citizens unless they know what people want.

The reason we have not done better at fighting poverty, for example, is the massive gap between what citizens on the ground want and do, and what government thinks they want and do.

The likeliest pattern is...

If the ANC leadership realises this, the next ten years may see attempts to work more closely with business, labour and other social actors. They would also then see a far more serious attempt to give grassroots citizens in the shack settlements, country areas and townships a real say so that government knows what they want and they feel able to work with it.

The result would not be Utopia or anything like it - we have many challenges and conflicts and they will not disappear in the next ten years. But it would be a government and a society better able to deal with its problems, one which would not only be a stronger democracy, but a society with more capacity to face its challenges and to begin to deal with them, because political leadership would not be trying to wish the country's conflicts and challenges away, but would be providing channels to deal with them.

In the real world, life is not as simple as this analysis seems to suggest: the likeliest pattern for the next ten years is a messy mix of the two choices discussed here.

By 2018 we will not, therefore, have lurched into disaster, nor will we have begun to beat all our problems. But, the more political leaders lean towards the second option, of reconnecting with the people, the more we will be able to move away from the bickering of the present to a more productive politics.

  • Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is also a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics.

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