Politics and Haiti

2010-01-27 00:00

WHAT is a ruling party in a democracy, and what makes it tick?

It is a team, with a certain set of clearly stated objectives, but it is also a set of individuals, each no doubt with his or her own additional motivations. Once politicians get into power, to what extent are they apt to forget or underplay some of their party’s policies, and to focus too narrowly on staying in power? Are they not in danger of using their position in order to forward business or other interests?

A lot depends on the culture of the society in question. In some societies corruption is not common, partly because there is a strong and vigilant opposition party, sniffing out signs of corruption and ready to take over from the governing party, and partly because there are well-enforced rules that guard against corruption, which, in any case, is generally frowned upon. At the other end of the spectrum there are societies that are lax and where various degrees of corruption are more or less taken for granted.

At what point on the spectrum is government in South Africa? We all know about the cases of conflict of interest, the obsession on the part of some with expensive cars and the seeming indifference felt by many local councillors to issues of service delivery. The African National Congress speaks often about the plight of the poor, but are most of its representatives deeply concerned about the poor? Do they lie awake at night worrying about them? There are no easy answers to these questions.

Questions of this sort need to be considered in every country. Do members of parliament every­where take their political and social commitments seriously? In the Ukraine, for example, which is at the moment in the middle of a presidential election, it is rumoured that out of its 450 members of parliament 400 are millionaires.

Thoughts of this kind were rudely shaken up by the terrible earthquake in Haiti. No words can describe the psychologically and physically devastating effect of the disaster upon those Haitians who have survived.

The media have focused on Haiti so fully, so intimately, that the earthquake has become a global event. In a certain sense we have all become participants in the situation, and I think almost everyone who follows the media has come to recognise, quite spontaneously, the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. Those dusty and exhausted children being pulled out from the rubble. Those mothers

weeping inconsolably. Those men with their heads despairingly buried in their hands. Those traumatised impatient youths trying to grab aid parcels. They are not just the inhabitants of a strange, wretchedly poor Caribbean island. They are just like us, in fact they are us — our sisters and brothers. If we can, we have to help them in some way.

Rescue teams and innumerable planeloads of supplies have come in from every part of the world. Quite suddenly, as suddenly as the earthquake itself, the compassionate unity of the human race has become a reality­.

It would be naïve to say: “Now that we have seen that we do all, or almost all, really care for one another, that we are horrified by human suffering, let’s try to reconstruct our politics to take account of that fact.

“Let’s abandon all thoughts of self-aggrandisement and give ourselves over to compassion and the politics of compassion.” The fact is that the Haiti earthquake is a single event which calls for a simple pure impulse of empathy.

The politics of everyday life is far more complex, and involves the choice and balancing of options, and elements of self-assertion, calculation and competition. In this mix compassion is perhaps bound to have a rather rough ride.

But at the same time, the vision of human unity and sympathy, which is the one gift that could be said to have been bestowed on us by such appalling events as the 2004 tsunami and this year’s earthquake, is something that we might well treasure and be inspired by. Let our memory of that lie behind our politics and our economics. And as the world becomes more interconnected, as we all come to realise that we are living in one another’s back yards, compassion and mutual understanding will have to become a very central part of practical politics.

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