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Makhosi Khoza: The rise of the individual over the party?

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

Can Makhosi Khoza succeed as an individualist, going over the head of the ANC and appealing directly to the people? We may have finally arrived in an era where individualism, and not collectivism, has become the leitmotif in the ANC, and the mass party may well be on its way out.

The political conversations in our body politic, particularly around the relationship between party and member, with Dr Makhosi Khoza at the centre of it, has been profoundly interesting. It is not for the reasons of rights and responsibilities of a member in a party and what exceptions there may be, but rather for what it symbolises about latterday politics, that in fact we may have finally arrived at the era where individualism, and not collectivism, has become the leitmotif, and the mass party may well be on its way out.

In a perceptive Fabian pamphlet written as long ago as 1992, entitled Making Mass Membership Work, Gordon Brown identified the problem. “In the past,” he argued, “people interested in change have joined the party largely to elect agents of change. Today they want to be agents of change themselves.” Many scholars have argued that even though political parties have formed the cornerstone of our representative system since long before the era of universal suffrage, there are signs that the age of the mass party is coming to an end. This is confirmed by lower party membership, lower turnout in general elections and falling identification with political parties – which are by no means unique to any one particular country. This is common to most advanced democracies. Makhosi Khoza clearly sees herself, and no longer her party at this stage, as an agent of change.

According to the individualists, the mass movement and collectivism’s vision is essentially a paternalist one. Hugh Gaitskell told Richard Crossman in 1959, “We, as middle-class socialists, have got to have a profound humility. Though it’s a funny way of putting it, we’ve got to know that we lead them because they can’t do it without us, with our abilities, and yet we must feel humble to working people.”

Makhosi Khoza is an individual; she does not feel she needs the machinery of the party to be this agent of change, she refuses to depend on the party, she refuses to toe the line, she refuses to be gagged, because honestly, with her skill and her intelligence, she can do it on her own. But can she?

Individualism does destroy paternalism. You begin to see party leaders trying hard to lead, with followers ceasing to follow – or rather ceasing to see themselves as followers. The problem of course is that individualism almost always leads to the advancement of the individual herself and her family rather than emancipation as a class. So what can a group of individuals who don’t see themselves as followers ever achieve for anyone other than themselves?

Put it differently, why do we continue to cheer for Makhosi Khoza and Mondli Gungubele and others? Is it because we think there is something they can achieve for us? No, we do not. In an era of ndividualism, we cheer the individual, not because we think they can do anything for us, but because we see a triumph of the individual over the paternalistic party. Individualism then becomes good only to prove the importance of the individual over a party and for the individual’s advancement. Nothing else.

The real reason, however, for the rise of the individual is that across the world, parties have become among the least trusted of social institutions. As this trust has declined, party power has also declined, with the relative strength of special interests having grown. Outside groups often have more money and flexibility than the parties. The result has been that the real source of power in politics now resides in personalities, not parties. It’s been hard to see this until recently because the personalities of old were career politicians. The rise of the individual over the party has been witnessed over the last 40 years.

It is argued for example that since the eras of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in the UK, there has been a yearning to be represented by men and women of independent spirit, people whose interests are not constrained by the requirements of party politics, and hence both of them were plebiscitary leaders, appealing over the heads of their parties directly to the people rather than through them. The difference, however, of this era is that the strength of the individual was used to grow the party and not to challenge it. If people love celebrities and popular figures, how can that be harnessed to grow the party instead of it being used to elevate the individual over the party?

There has been a shift from what political scientists call “position” politics, where parties disagree on fundamentals (nationalisation of basic industries, raising or lowering taxes, retaining or abandoning nuclear weapons) to “valence” issues, where there is agreement on fundamental aims – an effective National Health Service, better schools – and disagreement is confined to the issue of which party is best placed to achieve them. This may explain why people are able to move between political parties of historic opposite extreme ideology. The disagreement, however, will not stop there until an individual stands alone. Again the question rises as to what can individuals who stand alone accomplish for others?

Makhosi Khoza and others have proven that the image of the African National Congress as some formidable organisation with legions of political henchmen and bosses capable of imposing their will on the rank-and-file was a leftover from a bygone era. The era of individualism makes singular figures more popular than the party.

The challenge of political parties, however, is a challenge of democracy itself. In a party, as in a democracy, a decision may be driven by thinly researched, read or understood populist sentiment, but it still carries just as much weight as a well-considered, thoughtful one, and election outcomes everywhere reflect this. No one ever said people have to vote for what you consider a more cogent thought, or your thought, however commonsensical or wise you can view such a thought.

The paralysis of democratic processes, where without the majority your views are as good as dead, has resulted in Makhosi Khoza going over the heads of her party, appealing directly to the people. The danger, of course, is to avoid politics becoming a form of democracy which is just for the articulate.

Makhosi Khoza can avoid the challenges of a political party now but if she intends to achieve anything beyond personal career advancement, democracy will still require her to subject herself to some form of majority view, if not from political parties, from the people themselves.

Of course, President Jacob Zuma has been no less an individual operating largely outside the party. A question of who the plebiscitary leader is, as defined to be a leader who pursues a substantive agenda that is his or her own, not that of the people and thus possesses an extraordinary degree of independent decision-making authority, between Zuma and Khoza may well be out. DM

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