See the evil, hear the evil, speak the truth.
17 September 2014 09:21 (South Africa)
South Africa

Coming soon to South Africa: The politics of satisfying electoral masses

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
brooks on politics.jpg

In the politics of “more”, which dominates discourse in SA, Mamphela Ramphele’s “Agang” platform would appear to be way out of its league. However, history suggests that the politics of “less” has an uncanny knack of toppling, or at very least bringing into line, dynasties similar to the ANC. It’s a huge risk, but Ramphele is, to use Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase, appealing to “the better angels of our nature”. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Shortly after the European fighting in World War II was over, and even before the defeat of imperial Japan in Asia and the Pacific had occurred, Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party were unceremoniously turfed out of government by Clement Atlee's Labour Party. Some could easily have thought the British people would have rewarded Churchill with a landslide victory, instead of a “thank you very much, now good bye!” for helping lead the successful defence of the world against fascism and defining the fundamental reasons for that ultimately victorious struggle.

Charles de Gaulle had been part of the same victorious coalition in World War II, albeit in a slightly more troubled partnership. He then departed the political spotlight for years, only to return and then bring to an end the bloody, seemingly endless French occupation of Algeria, to crush the internal rightwing terrorist group, the OAS, and then bring about an era of deeply longed-for political stability via the Fifth Republic – only to be cast aside in the wake of the season of youth protest in 1968.

In post-war Japan and Germany both, two political parties successfully led the dramatic economic rebirths and then the re-legitimisation of these two crushed, defeated nations – the Liberal Democratic Party and the Christian Democrats, respectfully. But both parties eventually became bereft of ideas, were deeply riven with internecine factional splits, and were eventually deemed by the citizens of those two nations as incapable of leading their respective nations in a changing world.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt consolidated its hold into what was often seen as a permanent majority. It brought together conservative Southern white voters, Northern ethnic minorities and working class labour votes, and the intellectual energies of the left for durable national political power – as a result of the Great Depression and World War II. This coalition prevailed – with the exception of the Eisenhower years – from the early 1930s through to the national political chaos of the year 1968. Its revival under the Clinton and Obama years had to substitute middle class suburbanites for the lost Southern whites who had abandoned it for a segregationist third party and then Republicanism in the wake of the civil rights revolution.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the Republicans had built another, earlier political dynasty rooted in preserving the Union (and the votes of hundreds of thousands of army veterans), their decisive ending of slavery, and establishing the growing domination of the national economy by the North’s industrial might. This run of power at the national level finally came to an end with the rise of new ethnic minority, urban voters – and the growing demands for the economic and political results of the reform energies of the Progressive Era.

Even in China, the Communist Party, completely victorious in the Chinese Civil War of the late 1940s, has eventually only managed to remain in power by shucking off nearly all of its earlier ideological legacy and the mythology of the great workers’ and peasants’ party. Instead, to survive with their hand still firmly on the tiller, they embraced the ideas now espoused by the technocratic heirs of Deng Xiaoping's invocation, “to be rich is wonderful”. But, they are forever watchful of any social movement that might challenge this ascendancy.

In South Africa, of course, it is now the African National Congress that increasingly faces a crisis in holding onto permanent power – even before “Jesus comes”. Its majorities continue to slip, most especially if one factors in the people who no longer even choose to vote. Some analysts, and not a few politicians, predict its fall, nationally, below the crucial threshold of 50% of votes cast – a few elections into the future. Meanwhile, within the party, the fractious factions increasingly see that holding onto power – primarily for the swag their supporters can tender for one way or another – is increasingly more important than any fervently held, all-embracing, ideological view about how best to organise the country, the economy and society. (We are well and truly into that “circulation of elites” territory so beloved of social theorists to explain how the rich and powerful stay that way, despite ostensible changes in the ruling elite and their structures.)

These examples around the globe and from history all clarify a central theme in political party behaviour. There is a fundamental choice between two alternatives – and each has its own little Faustian bargain built right into it. On the one hand, a party can appeal, in a very operational sense, to its supporters on the grounds of what it has done: ended a depression; brought peace or the spoils of war; or divided the wealth and eliminated the exploiting class.

But those grateful voters eventually stop being grateful. Instead, they ask what have you done for me lately, and where’s my group’s fair share of the wealth. And what is worse, eventually the voters who were originally motivated to support the party get tired, they become old, then they eventually have the temerity to die off. And the next generation doesn’t feel the love in the same way as those earlier supporters felt it – unless there are new promises to tempt newer voters into the ties of party loyalty.

On the other hand, a party can try to appeal to voters on a more abstract, aspirational basis – to speak to “the better angels of our nature”, in Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase. In such cases, political leadership asks would-be supporters to join with them to transcend grubby politics as usual, to aim high, to build a better community, to create that shining city upon a hill, to achieve that secular utopia.

In South Africa, all of the parties on the contemporary landscape are effectively promising different versions of “more”. Effectively they say: Vote for us and we’ll build it faster and cheaper; we’ll build more of it –  if only voters will agree to remain, or become, their supporters. But something, in Mamphela Ramphela’s announcement of her new political effort may have stirred the pot in unpredictable ways – and with it her hope that things will become so unpredictable her decidedly unorthodox message can achieve traction with voters.

With physician/black consciousness icon/university head/business leader/world financial institution senior manager Mamphela Ramphele’s one toe at a time entry into South Africa’s political waters, a new-style (at least for South Africa) politician is angling for a chance to spell out a transcendent vision of politics as a place for those better angels to take charge – for more hard slog and struggle, fewer easy tenders, more hard national commitment on building common ground – in short, the politics of “less”.

It is a gamble, and a big one. In recent years, at least, Ramphele’s reputation has been something of a public scold for many – a kind of Old Testament prophet decrying the excesses in the temple. But with her decision to ease out the launch of her Agang political forum, she is placing her reputation and place in history firmly on the block. On the one hand she will have to find a way to finesse her steps around the Democratic Alliance’s own appeal (and its tough, battle-tested leadership) that has combined the old-style politics of “more” with a bit of the transcendental appeal of that “take the cod liver oil, it’s good for you”, puritanical “less” message. And, on the other hand, she will need to outflank the ANC’s well-known message of “Sure we’ve made some mistakes, but we are YOUR party, and have been for decades. Who is this woman anyway?”

In essence, the question Ramphele will now have to frame, right out of the starting blocks, is whether voters – or at least enough of them to matter so she can keep her future alive in politics, post 2014 – will agree that her prescription for pain is what they really want to see in their future. Or, will they, almost inevitably, if history is any guide, fall back instead on the more familiar, more usual and comfortable path, as voters weigh the messages of their other politicians – and then as they make their decisions on the basis of who promises them more, rather than less. DM

Photo by Greg Nicolson.

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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