Elections bring out the beast within us

2014-02-19 10:00

I once thought if you wanted to see humanity at its worst, few situations are as illuminating as watching people preparing to disembark a plane.

Something thoughtless happens when the captain turns off the seat belt sign and the flight attendants disarm the doors.

People immediately leap from their seats and into the aisles, like Pavlov’s dog to the sound of a ringing bell.

They pull down their luggage from the overhead compartments and, staring dumbly forward, wait for the cabin door to open – the next trigger of the conditioned response.

I once saw an elderly man in a suit piss himself because no matter how loudly his peals of desperation rang out, people standing in the aisle waiting to disembark were reluctant to move out of the way for him to get to the toilet.

Maybe they thought he was trying to “steal” their place in the queue to exit the plane.

Maybe they were so rehearsed in the mindless process of disembarking they didn’t know how to respond to the stimulus of the man’s appeals for room to get past. His final desperate plea did nothing to break through.

“Please, for heaven’s sake,” he cried out, “let me get by. I’m going to piss myself.”

They didn’t let him get by and the man was humiliated – and for what?

So, no, I don’t believe in the overly romantic notion that airport arrival halls are the most hope-inducing places on the planet.

I’ve seen what those people were up to just moments before they tearfully hugged their loved ones, and it wasn’t pretty.

But having observed lately how people carry on during election season, I’m convinced this is actually when we are at our worst.

The election season is like a work party with an open bar, where we act as if we won’t have to look at each other again in the sober light of day.

But during election season, it’s not alcohol we’re imbibing. It’s a cocktail of political self-interest.

We drink copious amounts of it normally, but during election season, politicians come around with kegs and encourage us to chug it down.

They slice us, the electorate, into demographic groups and spend lots of money trying to hem the fate of their political parties to the fate of their target groups.

In this way, affiliation to a political party becomes a core part of that group’s identity in much the same way as allegiances to football clubs go.

Here, loyalty becomes blind and introspection is thrown out the window because, in political contests, it is a sign of weakness your opponents will exploit.

On Wednesday, we saw a gross manifestation of this – of people drunk on self-interest, egged on by politicians screaming: “Chug! Chug! Chug!”

I can only speculate as to what possessed Helen Zille to march on Luthuli House to “expose” what she said were lies about job creation in the ANC’s election manifesto.

Perhaps her mission was duplicitous in that the only thing she wanted to expose was the ANC’s failure to grasp the basic tenets of political tolerance. But I do know someone should have told her it was a dumb way to do this and the party’s members should not have gone along with it.

And I can’t say either what possessed Jessie Duarte, Jackson Mthembu and other senior ANC, SA Communist Party and ANC Youth League leaders to call on their members to “defend” Luthuli House. But I do know someone should have also told them it was a dumb idea and the party’s members should have stayed away.

Instead, much like feudal lords in medieval Europe, both parties summoned the poor and unemployed masses, kitted them out in their parties’ colours and set them on each other – the only winners in the whole fracas being the political parties themselves.

I guarantee the 4.8?million people officially recognised as being without work gained little from the DA’s march or the ANC’s countermarch – not now, not in the future.

But it’s the fact that neither group of supporters had the wherewithal to reject the demonstrably foolish ideas of these politicians that is going to make the 79 days until we vote on May 7 hard to take.

Politicians have their reasons for behaving badly but the rest of us really shouldn’t be playing along.

Molefe is a social commentator

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