Seeking out real nobility in politics

2014-06-01 15:00

Politics, particularly in South Africa, has a bad reputation.

This is shown by much public and private commentary – from the old joke about the etymology of the word ‘politics’ being derived from ‘poly’, meaning “many”; and ‘ticks’, meaning “bloodsucking parasites”, to the fact that the name for the beautiful game and most popular sport in the world, football, instantly acquires a negative connotation as soon as you give it the adjective “political”.

It also doesn’t help that many people in active politics tend to be power-hungry, money-chasing media whores (or media avoiders, as the case may be) and/or hopelessly incompetent and lazy.

The exceptions are remarkable for being the contrasting minority of politicians who actually do what the public expects them to do.

But just as a religion shouldn’t be judged by its worst practitioners, so a profession shouldn’t always be judged only by the worst in its ranks.

There are good politicians and there is a noble purpose underlying politics.

“What? A noble purpose in politics?” I hear you ask.

Many people think the only thing “noble” in politics is that many of our top politicians seem to live the lives of medieval nobility from centuries past at taxpayers’ expense.

I would like to make the case, admittedly in the face of scant evidence, that the noble purpose of the politician is to be an advocate for, and defender of, public policy ideas for improving people’s lives and uplifting social wellbeing.

A politician should first, foremost and fundamentally be a person of ideas. Everything else should flow from that.

In this way, political debate becomes a contest of competing ideas and elections become an opportunity for voters to choose between policy platforms offered by different parties to select the one they believe stands the best chance of improving their lives when implemented as government programmes.

Judging by this standard, the public would know that the politician who displays ego before intellect is the inferior type.

The first side in a debate to play the race card or launch a personal attack is the one that has already lost the argument due to a lack of ideas.

The power of ideas cannot be underestimated, although it often plays out in unexpected ways.

This power is less like an atom bomb explosion and more like the Colorado River slowly and steadily carving out the Grand Canyon over millions of years, or the roots of a tree slowly breaking apart and lifting up a tarred pavement.

The power of ideas is how the writings of men like Karl Marx, trying to predict the future of industrialised Europe, influenced sociopolitical dynamics in an entirely different country that wasn’t even on his forecasting radar, Russia, eventually resulting in the Cold War and its impact across the world.

The power of ideas is how the DA went from a one-seat Progressive Party in 1961 to a Constitution in a free and democratic South Africa that contains almost every idea the party had advocated for since inception and over several decades.

The maturation of our democracy is dependent on at least two changes: the emergence of more competitive politics but also of more ideas-driven politics.

Beware the politician whose first words are: “Here’s what I want to give to you?...” rather than: “Here are my ideas?...”

» Mbhele is a new MP for the DA

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