Voting along tribal lines

2009-03-24 00:00

South Africa will never be an open democracy where meritocracy shines and mediocrity dwindles, unless we ourselves make it so. In an open democracy, there are no political taboos; there are no issues that the public cannot discuss openly.

If South Africans were asked to raise their hands if they supported the idea of a society where everything is brought before the judgment seat of reason, it is highly likely that most of us would raise our hands.

But we are the very people who whisper in hidden corners about issues we consider taboo. For a while now, people have been whispering about the perceived or real dominance of Xhosas in our politics. There is even an established codename for this: it is called the “X Factor”.

Indeed, there are many in the African National Congress who have been complaining quietly about the X Factor. Regardless of the party’s public dismissal of ethnic concerns, some of its members continue to wait for the sun to set so that darkness can prevent them from being seen or heard talking about this. You only need to interact with them at a social level to establish the depth of the ethnic question.

But the ANC is not the only party in which ethnicity refuses entombment. After the recent appointment of Mvume Dandala as presidential candidate for Cope, the X Factor was again silently raised in many quarters. Indeed, the idea of a party such as the United Democratic Movement being led by a non-X could easily be dismissed by some as daydreaming.

So serious is the X Factor that there are many of our Zulu compatriots who think Jacob Zuma represents their turn to occupy the elevated chair in the Union Buildings. It does not matter how educated or uneducated, there are a number of people who think like this.

The tendency on the part of our political organisations has been to suppress discussion on ethnicity while openly talking about racism. Ironically, predominantly black political organisations share the same approach with largely white political parties — the ostrich approach.

While whites devise subtle ways of suppressing discussion on racism, blacks on their part work very hard to project tribalism as a non-existent phenomenon.

But why are we whispering about issues of ethnicity? Why don’t we throw them into the open, debate them and make conscious choices about them? When all the self-imposed political taboos are lifted, we will soon realise that we are faced with two models as a nation: tribal affirmative action or untrammelled excellence.

A tribal affirmative action model would take the form of job reservation for members of tribes we deem underrepresented in the public service, private sector and non-governmental organisations.

In politics, we would need to adopt a rotational system that facilitates the exit of leaders from one ethnic group and the entry of others. After a Zulu president, for example, we would then need to agree whether or not an Ndebele, Shangaan or Pedi president should be the next president.

The untrammelled excellence model is essentially what we have been following since 1994, where “the wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow”, to borrow from Plato.

Of course, Plato was wrong in concluding that those who are being led are necessarily ignorant. But he was right in saying “The wise shall lead and rule”. This is the essence of an untrammelled excellence model. In this model, if you are not the best you don’t lead.

Historically, South Africans have been more inclined towards the untrammelled excellence model. Political parties never allowed imbeciles to be at the helm of their organisations. Names such as Langaliblele Dube, Jan Smuts, Pixley ka Seme, Robert Sobukwe, Mangosotho Buthelezi, Joe Slovo and others testify to this.

Our society must also confront some critical questions. Is it impossible for us to build a nation that is blind to ethnicity and is race-unconscious? Are we so uncivilised that, even when we all agree that Trevor Manuel is our best presidential material, we are still not prepared to consider him simply on the basis of skin colour?

But there are major handicaps that few of us are prepared to admit openly. These are ignorance and illiteracy. It is these twin problems that allow ethnic entrepreneurship to flourish in our society, and to delay our nation’s move from tribalism to humanism. Anyone who dares to turn public attention to this problem does so at the risk of political insults.

We do not confess to ignorance and illiteracy because we feel embarrassed. The educated lock themselves up in cocoons of psychological comfort, pretending ignorance is not a national crisis.

The only time the educated complain about ignorance is when there are elections. Those on the losing side worry that the ignorant will deliver victory for their political adversaries, and those assured of victory shake their tails in anticipation of good results.

Our politicians make a fortune from ignorance and illiteracy. We hear some of them claim to be the champions of the poor. They criticise and project their political opponents as being elite and parade on the catwalk as the true representatives of the poor.

It is only a careful observer who is shocked to discover that these champions of the poor, like their political adversaries, live in leafy suburbs, wear Italian designer labels, drink Scotch whisky and smoke Cuban cigars.

When ignorance reigns supreme, meritocracy takes a back seat. Among the ignorant, a talented person and statesman-like leader such as Cyril Ramaphosa would rather be overlooked because he is not from the tribe whose time has come.

Indeed, the ignorant in our society have no capacity to appreciate excellence. They use ethnic impulses to make leadership decisions and a narrow sense of nationalism as a source of hollow pride.

This can only be changed once education is allowed to spread its tentacles to reach all corners of our society. Education is to society what light is to darkness.

But we should never suppress a debate on ethnicity and tribalism. We should be as vigorous in discussing it as we are in raising questions about racism. It is only when we have attained such levels of openness that we can proudly say that South Africa is an open democracy where meritocracy shines and mediocrity dwindles. — News24.

• Prince Mashele is head of the crime, justice and politics programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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