Opinionista Helen Zille 23 July 2018

In politics, you soon learn who’s sharpening their blades

Politics is about power – how it is won, exercised, held to account, lost and regained. Inevitably it attracts extreme personalities: the idealists who want to make the world a better place, and the egoists in search of influence, headlines and celebrity status.

With less than a year to go before the 2019 elections, the candidate selection process in various parties is grinding into gear.

Nominitis, an intense fever, characterised by high temperatures (including bouts of delirium), is spreading through party caucuses, and beyond.

Representative politics, unlike many other jobs, requires members of Parliament (nationally and provincially) to re-apply for their positions every five years, and compete against their closest colleagues, as well as eager newcomers, for an electable position on a party list.

This is the toughest time in the electoral cycle and generally brings out the worst in people.

I know nothing about the calibre of prospective candidates in other parties but in the DA, motivated and idealistic young adults approach me almost every day for advice on how to embark upon a political career. Most of them are aspirant candidates for a position on the party’s 2019 election lists.

The candidate selection maelstrom will be the first of many ice-cold showers they can expect if they pursue the path of politics. It should give them pause for thought on whether they really want to continue.

It therefore seems as good a time as any to look back and reflect upon the best counsel I received in politics, as well as the lessons I learnt the hardest and best way – through experience.

There are far more young aspiring politicians now than ever before, partly because graduates today considering a political career tend to embark on it straight out of university. It wasn’t always so. Back in the day, people generally entered politics after a decade or two in another career, sometimes even after retirement (such as newspaper editors). Life experience and a strong, established reputation were considered important qualifications for the job of being a public representative.

The optimal outcome, in my view, is to balance experience with fresh blood, measured against agreed criteria, that take into account the complexity of governance in a diverse and polarised society. It is a very challenging task.

Politics is about power – how it is won, exercised, held to account, lost and regained. Inevitably it attracts extreme personalities: the idealists who want to make the world a better place, and the egoists in search of influence, headlines and celebrity status.

It is often hard, at face value, to identify what motivates people who seek a political career.

My entry into representative politics, at 47, was driven by anger. I was propelled into the arena by a determination to fight government policy that I believed would destroy public education. Having fought the battle through the courts, as far as I could go, it was time for the next step. I decided to compete for a place on the list of the then Democratic Party under the leadership of Tony Leon, whose courage and resilience I admired.

At the small farewell function held for me at the University of Cape Town a colleague joked: “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.”

Back then I didn’t quite understand what she meant. I do now – although like all generalisations, there are exceptions.

But there are no exceptions to the aphorism that, in politics, “your opponents sit opposite you; your enemies sit behind you”.

This saying derives from the seating arrangement in the House of Commons where political parties sit opposite each other on the green benches in the world’s most famous Parliament. This provides the template for other democratic Parliaments in former British colonies.

Traditionally, the governing party sits to the Speaker’s right, in parallel rows, with the caucus leader in poll position; the largest opposition party mirrors this formation to the Speaker’s left.

As caucus leaders face off across the middle aisle, they know that no matter how tough the debate between them is, their real enemies are actually in their own team, waiting for the right moment to plunge a knife into their back. Not everyone, of course. One soon gets to know who is sharpening their blades.

But there are sometimes surprises, which is why “Et tu, Brute!” are the three Latin words most understood by English speakers. “You too, Brutus!” reflects Julius Caesar’s shock when his close friend and ally, drew the knife. Unsurprisingly, this is also one of the most famous aphorisms in politics.

We all expect, at least intellectually, to face the same thing at some point. But it is always a shock when it actually happens.

Ideally, a good politician should be rational and fair, but not naïve enough to expect the same qualities in others. And in order to be able to stay the course, a politician must be able to deal with the resulting disillusionment without becoming cynical.

Staying power is essential. Despite appearances to the contrary, there is nothing glamorous and little edifying about politics. As Helen Suzman always said: “Keep on keeping on”; Or, as Winston Churchill put it rather more directly: “Keep buggering on. (KBO)”

If you can’t KBO, stay away from politics. It is not for shooting stars.

In fact, if you have a choice in the matter, peak late. Politicians generally reach their peak performance much later than most other people.

At the other extreme, athletes reach the peak in their 20s as, apparently, do mathematicians. But in almost all other professions, there is nothing more important than the accumulation of lessons learnt through life’s cuts and bruises. Especially in politics.

Of course, one cannot always choose when to hit your career peak, because life opens doors at unexpected moments, and enterprising young people tend to walk through them without a second thought.

But sometimes, a little reflection helps.

I think the former chairman of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, Deng Xiaoping, was onto something when he warned young party “cadres” not to “rise by helicopter”.

You should really rise up step by step,” he advised.

I came upon this quote during some research on Deng’s leadership qualities, particularly the policy choices he made, against strong resistance, to take his country from the 100th ranked economy in the world, to the second largest, and put it firmly on track to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2035 (just 17 years from now). Deng could only change course with such conviction, while taking enough of his party with him, because he had learnt from experience what wasn’t working, and what techniques would enable him to turn the tanker.

The best definition I have heard of “experience” is “the accumulation of a life-time’s mistakes”. And, because politics, especially at the upper levels, is so brutal and so public, it is best to make a large number of your mistakes before reaching the top. You (and your family) are less exposed that way.

Another important product of experience is the capacity to draw a distinction between a real mistake, and one that the chattering classes label a mistake; and to have enough steel in your backbone to stand, through the storm, by what you believe is right.

But you will never know for sure that you are right, which is why perhaps the most important advice of all is to pick the right people to advise you, who are intelligent enough to see to the core of an issue, and tell you things that you may not want to hear. That helps to filter out the background noise of the chatterati, and take tough decisions, especially in crisis situations.

Today, there is a lot more training, support and nurturing of young talent in politics than any of us experienced when we put our hats in the ring. Nevertheless, if you want to go for a top job, you have to have the wherewithal to hit the ground running.By that time, you need to be nurturing others.

There are far too many talented people who think they can, but find the backwash and side currents more powerful than they could ever have imagined. At the first Spring tide, they are washed-up on the barnacled rocks of politics, and look back on what they once thought would be a very bright future.

Politics is not a place to look for affirmation or appreciation. On the contrary, as the old saying goes: in politics, no good turn goes unpunished.

So, after all of that, do you still want to go into politics? I hope so, especially if you are ethical, idealistic, persevering and gutsy. Politics needs you.

May you be able to stay the gruelling course, so that one day you can look back, like I do, and say: “It wasn’t easy. But it was worth it.” DM

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