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South Africa’s local government elections and the horseshoe theory of politics


Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

With the local government elections now limping towards their due date, what do we see? What do we learn? How are things changing?

The laziest answer to this question is that they are not changing at all. The ANC seems likely to win with a slightly reduced majority. The two largest opposition parties seem likely to improve a bit, comparing the national elections with the local elections … or fall back a bit comparing these local elections with the last local elections.

The result will be yet another more or less status quo, with the ANC in a dominant position. Therefore, superficially at least, we have yet another election where not much changes. I think this, while true, is lazy because I think politics around the world are changing, and changing fast and dramatically.

The future of politics is no longer a choice between left and right. But neither is it a choice between pragmatism and populism, as many would claim. It’s a choice between centrism and extremism.

Recently I was having an argument with a well-known left-wing personality in SA, who was berating me for not publishing more left-wing economists on Business Maverick (actually we do, to a fault). At one point, in deep frustration, he said: “I so miss the old Afrikaners; at least they were honest.”

But this affection by a left-winger for racist troglodytes of a past era comes as no surprise to me, particularly in modern politics. As someone who considers himself to be a profound centrist, from my perspective, the left and the right seem rather similar to me.

There is a political theory about the similarities between the left and the right, called the horseshoe theory of politics: the further you move to the extremes, the more comparable you become to your notional opposite.

A modern example is globalisation; both the left and right hate it with a passion.  

A robust criticism of the horseshoe theory was made a few years ago by Simon Choat, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Kingston University. He described the theory as “nonsense”, because, for example, the left and the right criticise globalism for different reasons and with different aims. For the left, “the problem with globalisation is that it has given free rein to capital and entrenched economic and political inequality. The solution is therefore to place constraints on capital and/or to allow people to have the same freedom of movement … given to capital, goods and services. They want an alternative globalisation.

“For the right, the problem with globalisation is that it has corroded supposedly traditional and homogeneous cultural and ethnic communities – their solution is therefore to reverse globalisation.”

The problem with this argument is that it’s just not true. To say, for example, the left’s solution to the free movement of capital is to endorse the free movement of labour would be excellent if it were accurate, but outside of the university campus, it’s not.

It now turns out that Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party, was kinda tolerant of anti-Semitism, according to the new leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer. And that is no accident: one other common characteristic of both left and right is the curiously enduring hatred of Jews. Opinion polls in the UK show this to be true in the general population too, but with much more ferocity on the far right than the far left. Yet both the far right and the far left are more anti-Semitic than the near left and the near right, the polls show. Think horseshoe.

I was struck this week by an article in the Financial Times by Gideon Rachman praising Germany as “the West’s sanest country”. The recent German election and its aftermath underline the point. It was a close contest, but the losers accepted the results gracefully, Rachman wrote. “Nobody tried to claim that the voting was rigged or that their opponents were ‘scum’ – or represented a mortal danger to the country.”

And he came up with a great line.

“This reversal of roles is not simply one of the ironies of history… it is a consequence of history … because they know where demagoguery can lead, mainstream German politicians are allergic to the cult of the leader.”

So how does this play out in South Africa today? As we all know, climate change scepticism is the vocation of the right. But what do you say when the mining minister of a notionally left-wing government, Gwede Mantashe, tells the Joburg Indaba, “We must not collapse our economy because of green funding”?

I don’t know what you think, but I think horseshoe. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Good old ANC – as usual showing off their awesomeness by crippling SA with loadshedding a.k.a. complete uselessness.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    So how does the current trend to use association fallacies whenever possible (“oh so you support guns so you must automatically be a racist that supports Trump” is a typical example of this) fit into the horse shoe system?

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