Political football — it’s either the road less travelled for Mzansi, or another own goal

Political football — it’s either the road less travelled for Mzansi, or another own goal
In this election, don’t choose the path that leads to ruin. (Illustration: Midjourney AI)

Political parties are like football clubs and their fans behave similarly, especially in terms of blind loyalty.

‘Look beyond election promises to the concrete solutions on offer.” That’s the headline of a DM168 article from 17 May. It is easy to make promises but harder to deliver on them.

It is also easy for most voters to believe promises will be kept when they are fans of a politician or a political entity. In Africa, we even go as far as buying and wearing shirts that feature our favourite politician’s face, adorned with party colours.

Every time we do this we become mere fans, much like football club fans. It is not unheard of for fans, in both soccer and politics, to embrace hooliganism. There is no political party on our continent that does not boast colours, a nickname, an anthem and songs that mock their main opponents.

Lesotho has more than 50 political parties for a population of about two million. If the Basotho were distributed equally among the parties, each would have 40,000 adherents. The parties then become a government, and almost invariably deliver emptiness. They do, however, take care of their staunchest fans by providing them with lucrative jobs and other benefits. And when you are in such a position and risk losing it, you will do anything to prevent it. Political killings in such situations are not unheard of.

More importantly, however, party fans stick with the party, no matter its performance or lack thereof. One doesn’t leave their favourite football club because it lost a final. If this comes to pass, it is very rare indeed.

Party leaders know this, hence the colours, the songs and the clannish trappings.

So, why is the ANC still the government despite delivering disastrous results? Why do South Africans continue to vote for it? Why was Jacob Zuma ever the president of the Republic of South Africa?

These questions are important because elections are near, and I fear that the majority of South Africans will once more blindly vote for the ANC, without giving it a serious thought. The ANC is still the government because the majority of South Africans vote for colour – party colours and skin colour. It will take a long time and a lot of political nerve for this to end.

Here are some of the pitfalls that come with the political football mentality I describe here: entrenched political parties often engage in corrupt practices, digging from state coffers to enrich themselves and their supporters and/or families. This undermines democratic institutions and skews resource allocation, fosters inequality, stifles economic growth and erodes public trust in government institutions.

When a party has an unreservedly loyal voter base, it faces little accountability for its actions or policies. This, of course, leads to poor governance, mismanagement and a lack of responsiveness to public needs and concerns.

We saw this in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, in successive Lesotho governments and in South Africa, during and after apartheid. During apartheid, 100% of voters were blankes (whites). The National Party didn’t care much for anyone except Caucasians. Coupled with the scourge of state-sanctioned discrimination, there was no accountability to other citizens, the nie-blankes (non-whites).

Dominant parties can also resort to undemocratic means to suppress the opposition, including harassment, censorship and the manipulation of electoral processes. When democratic competition is weakened in this way, political pluralism deteriorates and authoritarianism is just around the corner. Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Lesotho’s Leabua Jonathan and Malawi’s Hastings Banda were particularly adept at this.

Strong party loyalty deepens social and political divisions, nurturing an “us versus them” mentality. Such polarisation can lead to conflict, erode social unity and make consensus-building arduous, if not impossible.

When I was growing up in Lesotho, there were two main parties: the Basotho National Party and the Basotho Congress Party. They hated each other deeply. There used to be a National Tree Planting Day in Lesotho in the 1970s. The next day, on our way home from school, we would pull out and dispose of some of those recently planted young trees – because the government in power was not the one our parents supported.

These points illustrate some of the issues that arise when parties are prioritised over country. A last victim is groundbreaking policy solutions, which can be neglected in a bid to satisfy the support base.

The result is stagnation. Thus, political decisions driven by loyalty rather than merit lead to poor economic policies and mismanagement. And so on and so forth, as we have seen.

The Man with the Hoe by Edwin Markham addresses the plight of the common person and the failure of leaders to deliver on promises of prosperity and justice. “Bowed by the weight of/ centuries he leans/ Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,/ The emptiness of ages in his face,/ And on his back the burden of the world.” It is a long poem that cannot be quoted in its entirety.

In Ambrose Bierce’s A Political Apostate, the speaker says: “Good friend, it is with deep regret I note/ The latest, strangest turning of your coat;/ Though any way you wear that mental clout/ The seamy side seems always to be out.”

The last stanza of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken reminds us that it is usually not good to shun change: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence:/ Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –/ I took the one less travelled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

It is high time that Mzansi took a different road. “Do your research about the different parties and then exercise your right to vote on 29 May. You can’t complain if you don’t bother to vote,” the DM168 article reminds us. DM

Rethabile Masilo is a poet from Lesotho who lives in Paris, France.


By Rethabile Masilo

A voice said, ‘Put down your selves,
that is the only way to put the fire out!’
But we hung on.

And even after diggings
had confirmed Eden was Sterkfontein
and Heaven islands in the Caribbean,
we carried on. The voice was dismayed. 

A storm formed – the sky choked,
broke into tears, yanked its hair out by the roots 
at some of the things people do.
And that’s when fire began to rain.

The Street

By James Russell Lowell

They pass me by like shadows, crowds on crowds,
Dim ghosts of men that hover to and fro,
Hugging their bodies round them, like thin shrouds
Wherein their souls were buried long ago:
They trampled on their youth, and faith, and love,
They cast their hope of human-kind away,
With Heaven’s clear messages they madly strove,
And conquered, – and their spirits turned to clay.
Lo! how they wander round the world, their grave,
Whose ever-gaping maw by such is fed,
Gibbering at living men, and idly rave,
“We, only, truly live, but ye are dead.”
Alas! poor fools, the anointed eye may trace
A dead soul’s epitaph in every face!


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