The poverty of African politics

2016-03-09 18:55

Following the State of the Nation Address by President Zuma earlier this year, I have been asking myself why ruling parties in Africa stay in power despite the intense criticism and seemingly disgruntled electorate they face. From the outset let me just state I have no political persuasion nor do I intend to make this post an attack on the ANC government or any specific political party (well, at least not directly). I had a discussion with a friend of mine and we concluded that most of us simply complain about the party in power all day long but come election time the same power that gets every tongue wagging seems to retain its hold on office. Surely the fact that most people are unhappy with the government of the day should equal less votes at the polls?

Well, not so and here is why I think this won’t change anytime soon.

If the ANC is as bad as the opposition paints it to be and the electorate is unhappy with it then why is it that election after election, people bring it back with impressive vote margins. The simple reality is that there simply aren’t worthy contenders to oust these parties from power.

Africa is generally clouded with low voter turn-out for elections and this indicates two things – firstly, that the citizenry has been let down by the ruling parties for so long they see no point in voting and secondly, that the opposition parties themselves have nothing to counter what the ruling parties have and thus the electorate sees them as no better than the parties in power. Unfortunately, we have to admit that African politics is dodged by poverty of depth and tact which leaves many people thinking that it is better to vote for the proverbial devil that you know, than the one that you don’t know- well, that is if they actually decide to vote.

Turning back specifically to the South African context, The ANC does not have to rig elections or do anything major to win an election comfortably. All they have to do is rely on the poverty of the opposition politics (This is not to say that they themselves don’t suffer from the same poverty). Often, the opposition parties do the work for them and in essence help them achieve an electoral victory.

Rather sadly, South African politics like African politics in general, has found itself centred on personalities and not policies. We tend to generally focus more on the face rather than the vision behind the face. I tested this theory by asking thirty random people who they support and why. Every answer I got had to do with the person’s charisma or personal life but nobody could tell me what their leader’s policies and values were. That’s a worrying reality – we have an ignorant mind-set when it comes to selecting our leaders. This is also the reason why politicians can get away with writing fables in their manifestos. They know the electorate won’t bother reading them nor interrogating them further on their position. It seems all they need to say is #ZumaMustFall and they will get supporters.

This poverty I speak of can be seen chiefly, in the manner in which the opposition parties choose to oppose. Opposition parties are not only necessary but are healthy for any democracy. They are however, only healthy if they provide the right mix to the political climate. What South Africa has experienced in the last three years is nothing short of what I would call not just poverty but a drought of politics, all at the expense of its people. You don’t need to have a full bouquet on DSTV to enjoy comedy- all you have to do is follow one of the parliamentary sessions to see how the electorate is the last concern parties have. Everything seems nothing short of a joke. The SONA is a fashion parade (for everyone concerned, not just the opposition), serious business of the house is never finished on time and walk outs and chaos in parliament are as prevalent as strikes are in the country. On the subject of walking out of parliament, it might seem like a very impressionable thing to do but what many forget is that MPs are representatives of the people and when they are absent from parliament for whatever reason, so are the people they represent. Who speaks out for them while their MPs are being sensationalists and attention seekers? Nobody. Who loses out? Not the MP because he or she still gets paid for the sitting but the people who this MP is meant to represent. This is not proving anything apart from the fact that there is indeed a poverty, a poverty of politics.

By implication, opposition parties are designed to do just that – oppose. I have no problem with that and as I have said, that is a necessary ingredient to a healthy democracy. The problem is what we oppose. Unfortunately, opposition parties seem largely concerned with opposing figures in the ruling party and not the policies of such parties. For instance, the major thrust of South African opposition politics over the last ten months has been the #ZumaMustFall campaign. The campaign itself is based on the President’s alleged lack of leadership and the idea behind such a campaign is that the President must vacate office. Firstly, without the intervention of the legal system, this is something that would have to be decided in the political space which then leaves it to the ANC because of their majority in Parliament and their ability to recall the President yet the campaign has done nothing but isolate the ANC completely from it. The marches and petitions have only made the ANC more defensive of their President and this only means that it is impossible to remove the President from office. Remember when I said lack of tact? To remove the sitting President without the support of the ANC is an exercise in time wasting but then again this is the poverty of politics we have to contend with.

It’s quite disturbing to see the way politics has become a mud sling and a competition whose aim and chief goal is not to serve the best interests of the people of South Africa but to say the most obscene things about rival politicians as a way to secure votes. For the first time in quite a while, comments by an MP had to be expunged from the record in Parliament because of the degree of obscenity in them. This discussion contributed nothing to the state of affairs in the country, it was meant to paint the President as unfit for office (in a rather immature manner) but this tactic seems to have become the ordinary course of events in the political arena. Whereas one would expect parties to engage in constructive debate about their disagreements on governmental policies, we have instead seen parliament disintegrate into a name calling fest with walk outs and disruptions but nothing productive coming from it. Unfortunately, many people have taken the view that some opposition parties and their MPs are entertaining but that’s as far as it goes. This is why the ANC will stay in power for a whole lot longer than people predict. Until the opposition gets serious enough to tackle policies with counter policies and shift their focus to the citizenry, the ruling party will, at least in my view, continue to enjoy a majority in parliament for some years to come.

It’s also quite interesting to see how opposition parties go out of their way to deliver elaborate speeches on why the President must be removed and sometimes spend incredibly ridiculous sums of money in litigation yearly and petitions over matters that should be resolved in the political arena. I wonder if it would not send a better message to the electorate if these parties actually used these funds that are clearly in excess, to build houses, fund students, help the government provide sanitation? After all, the idea is to help South Africans live better lives right? Should it not then mean that regardless of who is in office, the people of South Africa should come first? I don’t believe that leadership starts with the holding of office because then that presupposes that one is a leader only because of their office and nothing else. In my opinion, a leader is a leader even without an office so why is it that the opposition fails to demonstrate such leadership before entering office? That my friends, is the poverty of African politics.

We need to get to a point where our political mindset matures to a stage of discussing and engaging on a policy level. In any society m disagreements are common and more so in a political space. Nobody expects the opposition to agree with the government on all of their policies (in fact if they did they would be a very useless opposition) but where there are disagreements, parties should be able to agree to disagree in a mature manner without the use insults and petty politics. We should move away from below the belt tactics and start engaging in substance based discussions. Let’s start hearing why the BEE Act should be replaced and with what or how the higher education crisis can be resolved without having to call anyone names or comment on their physical attributes. Africa needs politicians who can engage on that intellectual and policy level. We have way too many issues for us to be engaging in ‘Donald Trump politics’ which is characterised by name calling and sensationalism. Africa as a whole, cannot afford to dabble in that kind of politics.

One can never downplay the role of opposition parties in a budding democracy but that role is only played well if the opposition actually poses a credible threat to the ruling party enough to keep it on its toes. This is a challenge to get back to the core of politics and governance: the people and what is best for them. It’s easy to register a party and build a support base on the basis of disgruntlement with the President but one should always ask, what else can this party do? What do they bring to the table? Hopefully, the narrative and discourse of African politics in general, will soon change and one party out there will start ending this poverty of politics we are prisoners to.

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