Viva democracy

2008-11-14 00:00

Is the nature of South African politics beginning to alter? The signs are there, not only in the presence of the newly formed Congress of the People, but also in changing attitudes within the ruling African National Congress (ANC). And some would argue that Barack Obama’s recent triumph in the United States presidential election has renewed interest in politics and its capacity for popular change.

The policies of the new organisation have yet to emerge, but two important ideas were put forward at its founding convention. Both would strengthen democracy and promote good governance. One is the direct election of the national president, provincial premiers and mayors. Another is the belief that public servants should be disqualified from office in political parties. Proposals like these will deservedly attract considerable support.

The ANC is clearly worried about the challenge it faces from some of its ex-members in a party with a modern image. Already there are indications of new thinking, although this might also be a reaction to former president Thabo Mbeki’s authoritarian style. ANC president Jacob Zuma’s media charm offensive, the announcement of a new communications unit, and the call for more debate within the party and in society in general suggest greater openness.

Meetings scheduled to discuss the ANC election manifesto indicate increased awareness of a need for public engagement. If the party is moving away from its self-image as a vanguard liberation movement towards political accountability, this is good news. The government is reportedly showing a more sensitive attitude towards the incendiary situation in Khutsong. And if ANC Youth League president Julius Malema has indeed been reined in, the overall political temperature could be lowered.

Above all, there is a sense that constructive, appropriate political opposition is becoming more widely accepted as a patriotic activity. Every mature democracy has at least one competent government-in-waiting, guaranteed power if mandated through a free and fair election. South Africa will be a truly democratic society when its present opposition becomes a credible alternative government. It is inching towards that objective, but this will require opposition parties to put the national interest first.

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