Defections of convenience

2011-04-28 00:00

THE political climate is changing fast during this pre-election period and not always because public interest requires it to. Fluidity, especially the occasional change of political party­ loyalty, is an important feature of a democracy, one that minimises­ predictability and encourages innovation on the part of political­ parties.

However, such fluidity should not be driven mainly by narrow personal interests, but by ideas, ideological orientation and perspectives on matters of public interest. A young democracy like South Africa may be undermined by growing opportunism across the political divide, which has the possibility of distorting political processes and outcomes.

This shift of political allegiance is often associated with pragmatic politics. To borrow from an article by Jack Knight and James Johnson titled "Political Consequences of Pragmatism" published in The Political Theory in 1996, in one sense the term refers to preference of a practical approach to dealing with problems or issues; in another, it connotes a rejection of certainty about truths until they are tested through practical consequences of their application. In the latter sense, experimentation and innovation are seen in a positive light.

When seen as the opposite of the ubiquitous politics of routine, complacency and dogmatism, pragmatism is a welcome stimulus for open and radical democratic politics. In this sense, the crossing of floors by politicians is associated with maturity in politics and can be assumed to be positive for citizens who need innovation and new ideas to underpin how they are governed.

In South Africa there have been a number of defections of politicians crossing floors between parties and there will be more in the coming weeks. It seems that the main losers so far are the Congress of the People (Cope) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) where well-known members have mainly defected to the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Freedom Party (NFP). Defectors seem to have, all of a sudden, sensed that things are not well in their organisations and have seen what is good in their new parties. I am always left with more questions than answers.

There has also been a larger number of defections from the ANC, but most defectors seem to have decided to stand as independent candidates. On face value this widens the range and nature of choices that voters will have on the ballot box because there will be a larger number of party candidates from which to choose.

There will also be those who, like classical constituency candidates, are free of party strictures. These people, too, have suddenly woken up to the realisation that their parties are undemocratic.

In both cases, the rhetoric of defectors sounds democratic and progressive because it casts itself as the language of issues and public concern. I suggest that we should allow the possibility that these politicians are playing politics of convenience and are driven by strong personal agendas, some of which are pretty narrow, being about where the next source of job, position and income is coming from. And let them prove otherwise.

In a strange way pragmatism, as a philosophy, allows room for such a line of argument, because fundamental to it is the rejection of the certainty of truths that is peddled as such in public discourse. In this case, the focus should not only be on the truths they have discovered about their former homes, but also about the truths they want us to believe as being their motives­ for defection.

For a politician like J. J. Tabane, who for the past three years and as recently as a few weeks ago, has written frequently and emphatically about the rot which the ANC represented to him, and who says that Cope was the hope in the search for an alternative to the governing party, to now want anyone­, including ANC members, to believe that he and his colleagues are defecting because they want to help build the party, is to ask too much. The same can be said about all defectors. It is also no coincidence that these defections are happening close to elections.

I suggest that receiving parties and general voters should be sceptical of these defectors and newly independent candidates. They should satisfy themselves that their motivation is public service­ and not disgruntlement about the loss of career opportunities in their former parties.

The NFP in particular should be careful that it is not targeted by opportunists looking for positions and that it does not attract too many disgruntled members as disgruntlement tends to follow them.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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