When will we be free?

2009-02-06 00:00

At what stage in a developing democracy, I wonder, does the nation find freedom from the domination of politics. We are in chains: the affairs of political parties and politicians are omnipresent and omnipotent. They dominate our media, they determine propriety and credibility, and they demand the subversion of soul and mind. Even the business community, with its proclaimed adherence to the neutrality of commerce and finance, is susceptible to political demands and expectations, showing that it, too, knows exactly where the sunshine is to be found.

It is to be expected, I suppose. The political liberation of the country, together with its newfound commitment to rights and equality, represented transformation of such depth that the waves of change would be experienced for a long time after the event. Not only are South Africans learning to come to terms with the changes that have occurred, but the dynamics of our politics are still evolutionary as the dust whirls up before it settles. The challenge to the ANC by the breakaway group represents a major movement towards a competitive party-political regimen which is free of the apartheid baggage. It’s not necessarily free of the baggage of the past, however, for the dominance of personalities rather than policies and principles suggests that in the case of the ruling party, at least, divisions which may go back a long way can no longer be obscured. The deep significance of the formation of an opposition party from within the ranks of the ANC remains unclear to many who have not considered themselves political party loyalists. For those involved in the establishment of the Congress of the People (Cope), it must have been an agonising choice to turn their backs on a party (a movement, rather) that had become inseparable from their daily lives. They have many erstwhile colleagues who, although deeply concerned about the ANC of our time, would not cut themselves off in the same way. It would be unthinkable.

As I write, the centre of our city has been paralysed by a political party holding a demonstration of strength and support for its president. It is claimed that Jacob Zuma is in court because of a political conspiracy against him and the thrust of the party’s campaign to free him of the charges, because of the attempt to put aside the matter of his guilt or innocence, is a kind of counter-conspiracy that is no less political. The heart of the problem is that people who are responsible for making independent decisions within the context of the state, have been, for the most part, dependent on their political loyalty for their appointment in the first place.

Having witnessed the power of political nepotism within the apartheid state, the new government was no less intent on ensuring that the people responsible for translating the liberation promises into operational reality were reliable in their commitment to the party and its principles. Deployment by the party of its people into key positions is the modus operandi. While some people are uncomfortable about this, most of the electorate are not, and we should be ready to accept that any other party in power is likely to follow the trend. In more mature democracies, however, one has the impression that the ability to do the job effectively is an over-riding consideration and an appointee’s political affiliation is of less consequence. We lack sufficient trust to rely on a judgment which is made within the context of an apolitical assessment of the circumstances, or worse, one which may be coloured by support for a different party. The irony is that, with just a few exceptions, the policies of the various parties as reflected in their recently unveiled manifestos are strikingly similar. Given the needs of our country and society, this is to be expected, but it does show that the depth of feeling between political parties is rooted in factors other than their principled positions.

In the run-up to elections we must expect that while the politicians will go into overdrive, the government will go into reverse. It is already evident in the local and provincial spheres where decision making is influenced by the imminent election. At some levels decisions are avoided in case they turn out to be politically inappropriate, while at other levels people seek legitimate ways to advance their political aspirations within the framework of their state duties.

Hopefully, the time will come when state and political party are clearly defined and independent entities, a time when the party mandated to form a government and govern along lines set out in its election manifesto, leaves the government to exercise its governance responsibilities in the interests of all citizens and with accountability to Parliament, rather than a party caucus.

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