Election time calls for hard choices

2009-03-03 00:00

All serious political parties have moments when they have to take difficult decisions. The choice of convicted Winnie Mandela and Cope’s appointment of a political novice, Mvume Dandala, as its presidential candidate are cases in point.

Such decisions are even more interesting in the run-up to elections. There is nothing wrong with this, even if it looks opportunistic. In an electoral democracy, political parties use personalities and people’s needs to position themselves to garner votes.

People are attracted to parties with charismatic leaders, but more so when these leaders appear to be listening to them.

So parties looking to break new ground or consolidate support must take hard and even unusual, decisions. It may mean hard choices between matters of universal principle and political convenience, popular demands and prudent decisions.

People vote for parties that they want to see in power, hoping that their needs would be met in return.

When parties make these tricky choices, controversies break out and sometimes this leads to

internal divisions. These difficulties reveal the underlying deficiencies in the party, allowing it to go through a process of internal renewal and self-redefinition.

The divisions within the ANC in the run-up to Polokwane and the split that followed the recall of President Mbeki, leading to the formation of Cope in 2008, was a result of hard choices made on leadership succession. It caused even more hardships, which called for even trickier decisions.

The ANC has been in panic mode ever since, making even more errors in the process. But the institutional lessons learned from these problems cannot be found anywhere else. If applied, they would make the party stronger; otherwise, slow organisational decay will set in.

The appointment of Dandala has led to controversy and some Cope members have resigned from the party.

Cope calculated that the generally positive public responses to its birth vindicate its founders’ sense that political morality and the rule of law are critical issues for voters, especially new and formerly dormant voters.

In the absence of a leader with a stronger popular appeal than Jacob Zuma, Cope found one with a strong moral character. But finding similarly clean political leaders for premiership positions and lower levels of party leadership has proved difficult.

Where does a party looking for clean leaders find such people at the local, provincial and national levels? Cope decided that it would cast its net beyond its membership — what others have called finding leaders for hire.

Cope and the ANC, and to some extent Nadeco when it sacked its founder, have made some hard choices.

But many seasoned political parties have missed opportunities to make hard choices when the time was propitious. This is because such decisions can divide and lead to splits.

As a result, when the time for change came to the IFP, it stuck to its leader of decades, but hoped for different results in elections. It defended Nongoma and Nseleni as if Mafikeng and Delmas are less important.

Although the PAC did try the Cope experiment with a “clean leader”, when this failed, it sought to resist internal renewal.

In this election, the PAC does have interesting proposals, including a shift from social welfare to social development, an idea that the current government has been trying to implement since 1996.

But it’s a challenge of new wines in old wineskins. Although Azapo is unique in that its manifesto pronounces on foreign policy issues, the party remains unwilling to venture out to fish for voters in uncharted waters.

The DA missed an opportunity to install Joe Seremane as its president, the man they nominated for president in Parliament in 2008, and whose face features alongside Zille’s in DA posters for “black” areas.

Had the DA made a difficult choice, it would today be in such an enviable position that Seremane would be its presidential candidate, while Zille would remain its premier candidate in Western Cape, two seasoned political leaders.

It is unclear whether the DA has a national leader now that Zille has transitioned from Mayor of Cape Town to potential premier for the Western Cape.

While there is no guarantee that bold decisions will always lead to positive gains in elections, parties looking to run SA must be able to do businesss ununusual.

A serious alternative to the ANC must demonstrate that it will take hard decisions to take us to greater heights on both fronts. We deserve some courageous parties out there. Politically competent leaders please!

•Dr Siphamandla Zondi is an analyst of policy issues on service delivery, governance and international relations in South Africa and Africa.

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