A maturing democracy

2011-10-05 00:00

WINSTON Churchill once quipped that in war you can only be killed once, but in politics you can die many times. It’s true that politics is often brutal­, but there are sometimes transcendent moments.

One such moment occurred with the recent retirement from Parliament of Mike Ellis, the Democratic Alliance’s deputy chief whip. His counterpart, ANC deputy chief whip Bulelani Magwanishe, gave an extraordinarily generous farewell speech. He praised Ellis for 24 years of service to his country, calling him a “son of the soil”.

He recalled how in 1994 there were high levels of distrust among the new parliamentarians, but “we now have friendships across political parties”. Furthermore, “this house is now beginning to be a microcosm of the type of society we want to build — a society where people are judged by their character, not according to race, colour, class or belief. [Ellis] taught us that being in opposition does not equal being disloyal to one’s country.”

Speakers from other parties were equally fulsome in tribute. This was all despite the fact that Ellis is hardly soft and cuddly. Rather, he always stood his ground and was known for his biting­ wit. He never set out to be liked by the ruling party, be that the National Party when he first went to Parliament in 1987, or the ANC later on. But he earned respect by sticking to principle.

The same was true of former DA leader Tony Leon. He was viciously attacked by ANC leaders, but his patriotism was recognised when he was appointed ambassador to Argentina. One cannot, of course, expect opponents to sing one’s praises when one is still politically active, but it is a welcome sign of maturity that they will do so while one is still alive.

This was not the case for Helen Suzman. The best words for her came only after her death. It is vital­ for the health of our democracy that all political parties are seen as legitimate contenders for power. The true test is when a long-dominant party loses an election.

Zambian president Rupiah Banda gave a most gracious speech when he conceded the recent elections.

“The people of Zambia have spoken and we must all listen,” he said.

To the victors he said: “You have the right to celebrate, but do so with a magnanimous heart. Enjoy the hour, but remember that a term of government is for years. Remember that the next election will judge you also.”

It remains to be seen whether the ANC would ever allow itself to lose a national election. There are still many indications that it regards itself as the embodiment of the nation with the mandate to rule forever. Or until Jesus returns, as President Jacob Zuma says repeatedly.

But it is good that the ANC is concerned that it is losing its non-racial tradition as its party membership is overwhelmingly black African.

ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe says they want to increase white membership. The real problem though is that our politics will only be truly mature when voters vote on the issues, rather than race or an historic affinity­ divorced from current-day performance.

It is ironic that the DA is becoming more diverse as the ANC has become less diverse. This will make very interesting politics in future. — News24.

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