Where Have All the Independent Politicians Gone?

2013-12-01 09:03

The Democratic Alliance (DA) was triumphant that, at the conclusion of its policy conference, the party’s Federal Council had unanimously agreed on its stance on economic redress (a nuanced policy measure that, in principle, supports Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) and the Employment Equity Act (EEA)).

To the casual observer who had borne witness to the party’s ‘war of attrition’ over the subject, unanimous support must have been surprising to say the least. This harmony is anomalous considering how mutually exclusive the positions of those who supported and opposed the policies were.

In essence the argument, put forward by the proponents, is that economic redress needs to be achieved through a recognition that race, in South Africa, is an indicator of advantage, or the lack thereof. The proponents of the policy argue so despite liberals traditionally rejecting identity as an indicator of anything, let alone the basis upon which policy should be based. The term race-realism (referring to an awareness and acknowledgement of South Africa’s racialised past) is used to reconcile their ‘illiberal’ thoughts with a liberal political philosophy. On the other hand, those liberals who fiercely criticised and opposed the policy did so on the grounds that to recognise, and use, race as an indicator of privilege is fundamentally illiberal. This kind of race-reductionism, in their construction, undermines any benefits that the policies of BBBEE and EE could achieve.

So, given these diametrically opposed views, how is it possible that unanimity was achieved? There are three possible reasons.

First, the proponents could have actually won the argument on its merits.  Second, the opponents could have capitulated in the face of direct or indirect pressure. Third, there is possibly no real disagreement as there is a homogeneous narrative for policy ideas within the DA.

Number 3 is a non-starter as I have illustrated. The evidence, prior to the conference, suggests that there is, at least, some contestation when it comes to policy ideas within the DA. Number 1 is possible, but unlikely. This is due to how mutually exclusive both positions are. Despite the proponents’ argument to the contrary (that liberalism and race can be reconciled), the opponents seemed never to agree. To them, there is no middle ground.

(Of course, in the DA’s case, many of the opponents to the policy have no real association with the party today. So it is possible, though unlikely, that the Federal Council was of a more unified mind and the opponents beliefs were not generally shared by the party’s elite)

Number 2 is what interests me: namely, did political representatives of the DA who originally opposed the party’s stance on economic redress give in? If so, was this as a result of any direct or indirect pressure be it real or perceived? And, if that is the case, is this isolated to the DA or is it characteristic of our politics more generally?

It must be said that I have not heard any rumblings within the party which indicates that such strong arm tactics were used to force unanimity. Some outside the party have accused the DA leadership of systematically stamping out debate and preventing independent thought – but their allegations do not seem to be borne out by anyone in DA circles.

There are two reasons which explain why independent thought is largely absent from our political discourse.

Firstly, the political structure of South Africa’s electoral system makes independence a costly trait. Barring ward councillors who are directly elected by voters, MPs, MPLs and PR Councillors are all elected via proportional representation (PR). This means that in order to get elected, or make successful election more likely, the higher up one needs to be on the party’s list of candidates as the percentage of votes a party gets in an election translates to the number of seats it will win. The lower down you are, the less likely you are to be elected.

But what implication does this have for independence? The internal selection processes of parties that determine the way in which their candidate lists are put together – and where they feature on that list – means that party leaderships have an inordinate influence on who ends up where. While this varies from party to party (some leaders having more influence than others), the fundamental similarity between all of them is that political leaders have the ability to make or break careers. Whether this is through their own power of intervention (and selection) or the ability to influence screening committees, party leaders are powerful figures in electoral chances.

Some may correctly argue that they should be. I don’t necessarily disagree.

However, the fact that our political system incentivises politicians to adopt a servile attitude toward their leaders is troublesome. Without any form of security of tenure or ability to be elected without the party (our system does not allow for independent MPs and MPLs), any politician who wants to remain in public office must, as a matter of course, be very careful as to what they say and where they say it. Theoretically, parties argue that they are united in public but they allow full argument and disagreement behind closed doors. What is surprising then is that voters are expected to trust politicians putting on a united front in support of a policy that they may not have even supported in the first place.

Where politicians believe that their party is wrong, they should be able to ‘turn on their own’ in order to create wider awareness, engagement and criticism about such policies. They should be safe from retribution because their contribution to the argument is what should count. That is especially the case where they believe that the position the party is taking is at odds with their principles or the interests of voters. Imagine how many ANC MPs, free from the burden of having to silence their criticism in order to continue receiving a pay cheque, would hold President Zuma to account for any one of the scandals that have marked out his Presidency? Parliament would come alive in ensuring one of its primary duties: holding the executive to account.

In reality though, South Africa’s political structural intellectual deficit will continue. Although I do not necessarily support a constituency based electoral system which, it is argued, overcomes this issue (because even if the party suspends/fires the individual MP, they can still be voted into office by the voters), considering this as a possible remedy is necessary.

Free and open debate on the issues is important and necessary. Voters need to know the full depth of possibilities so that they can make an informed choice. Ultimately, if voters are the ones whom politicians serve, then surely as part of that service discussing a range of issues freely and fairly is what is best for them? It cannot be that voters are so important that they can elect a government but at the same time be treated as if they are so stupid that they cannot handle various members of the same party disagreeing with each other.

This is especially the case if disagreement exists at an internal level, and it is something the broader public know. Why then do political leaders fixate on all of their members holding the party line?

Secondly, then, political reporting is largely to blame. Whenever differences are detected, political reporters are quick to publicise them and they are often quick to blow them out of proportion. Sensible policy differences are taken to mean a variety of things, none of which need necessarily be true. They are reported as being a sign of division, a sign of an incoming leadership challenge, a breakdown in the personal relationship between the leaders concerned, political weakness, ill-discipline, incoherence and a whole range of other things.

That is not to say that where there is a difference, these things may not be present. But to frame policy difference in these terms all the time means that the ability to discuss policy in a sensible manner, and disagree, becomes a zero-sum game: the more united we look, the less room there is for independence. The narrative is diabolical because it means that the ways in which parties are reported on incentivises them to never see healthy disagreement as a good thing.

The DA’s stance on economic redress is again a good example. The media have widely reported that this represented a personal schism between Helen Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko (and a few other black leaders). Whether this is true or not (nothing factual suggests it is) shows the problem with our reportage: an alleged difference between the two based on sensible arguments was taken to mean that the DA was tearing itself apart, on the verge of a breakdown, in a battle for its soul and so on. Depending on whom you read would determine the rate of hyperbole. And all the while, the merits of the supposed disagreement were never substantively engaged with. Nor was any analysis made about the dichotomous positions. The reporting focused on the personalities and so any policy debate was immediately hijacked by issues of leadership, ambition and intrigue.

An interesting counter-example is to look at how the US Republican party is at war with itself and both sides are taking the argument to the voters. Now, when Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John McCain (R-Arizona) are discussed, they are not only discussed as personalities (it is natural that this should happen) but they are discussed as advocates of different policy. Having policy rather than personality feature predominantly in reports is refreshing. Because not only do the politicians and the voters have to work harder at explaining and engaging with such differences, voter choice and empowerment is drastically increased.

Political leaders are caught in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t paradox: if disagreement exists then they are weak but if they try to force/suggest unanimity, then they are ruthless/delusional. This unfortunate and unnecessary position may be more indicative of the lack of maturity on the part of those who write of our politics. Irrespective of who is to blame though, voters we come off second best. We never get arguments and policy matched against each other. We never get (difficult) judgments made on those terms. What we get however are easy judgments on transient personalities while the long-term implications of policy choices are ignored. This can only be bad for South Africa.

As a maturing democracy, South Africa has very difficult decisions to make. This is made even trickier in our case because of the long-lasting effects of colonialism and Apartheid. For as long as our electoral system creates a structural intellectual deficit and our political reporters engage in matters of personality, and not substance, we, as electors, will never be able to make the best policy decisions for ourselves. Sadly this is owing to the fact that people we depend on to aid us in such decisions are left wanting.

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