Defend Truth


Scramble for political power reveals how SA has lost the art of governance


Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

There is a widening disconnect between the political class and the voting public. While politicians are preoccupied with attaining or retaining power in 2024, none of them seems too concerned about the application of power and its relation to good governance.

Everyone wants to be a politician, but no one seems interested in being a public representative. The former is fixated on the intoxicating spoils of power without a thought spared about its use as a tool for improving society.  

As South Africa prepares to mark 30 years of democratic government, this political milestone demands a sober assessment of the state of society and the calibre of the country’s public representatives.  

In the coming months, the term of the sixth administration will come to a close, setting the stage for one of the most important general elections in the democratic era. Parties are clambering to craft pre-election agreements in preparation for a poll that is widely expected to reshape South Africa’s political landscape.   

Forecasters and political analysts alike previously correctly predicted the 2016 local government elections would be a contest concentrated in the metros. Furthermore, the punditry accurately forecast that the 2016 poll would open the floodgates of coalition politics.  

In hindsight, however, the commentary circuit overlooked one vital component of the increasingly complex South African political equation: the exercise of power in the opposition’s ranks.  

It is often taken as a given that once opposition parties ascend to political office, the application of power will be neutral. But the lessons of 2016 and 2021 are that this is a mistake not to be repeated going into 2024.  

While the governing party’s weaknesses and patterns of power are consistently studied and occupy the public imagination, those of the opposition are not subjected to the same level of rigour and intense scrutiny.  

The sins of the incumbent party are well known and the consequences of its exercise of power are felt by South Africans living under rapid economic decline and general decay.  

The other side of the coin is that the political spectacles which have materialised in the metros of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, eThekwini and Nelson Mandela Bay, are cautionary tales of the opposition’s equally destructive application of power.  

Admittedly, the governing party is not an innocent bystander in the metros’ mess. However, there is no denying that the running political battles in the major municipalities among opposition parties are not about principles or values. The fights are about who acquires the most power and gets to benefit from it.  

In two successive local government election cycles, opposition parties have failed to establish a distinctive brand of governance from that of the governing party.  

Instead, opposition parties’ skirmishes for power in municipalities mirror those of the governing party’s internal factional disputes. A striking common feature of both is the use of the courts to settle political scores — an indication of weak internal democracy and mistrust therein.  

The stakes for 2024 are high. But it is concerning that the focus of the opposition has been on tactically outmanoeuvring the governing party should the latter fall short of an outright majority in the election.   

It is unclear, however, how differently — if at all — the opposition will conduct itself if the South African electorate chooses to chart a different course for the country in 2024. The outcome of the 2024 general election will determine the future direction of the country’s economic policy and international relations.  

There is the major issue of South Africa’s climate change policy and the Just Energy Transition Partnership. There is the unresolved riddle of what constitutes a successful public health model. There is the state of public schooling and policing. There are also myriad public institutions to consider.  

Everyone is talking about power and how it will be divvied up after the election. But no one has yet put forward a compelling case of good governance, outlining a credible and viable alternative to the governing party. Perhaps this glaring gap is what has inspired the governing party’s strategic show of “humility” by engaging in exploratory discussions about coalitions.  

The task that lies ahead in the aftermath of the 2024 general election cannot be overstated. South Africa does not need more political spectacle, but desperately requires public representatives who understand good governance and the responsible application of power. DM


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  • Annemarie Hendrikz says:

    How splendid it would be to hear a compelling case for good governance and a commitment to represent the interests of the public.

  • Manie Mulder says:

    To repeat a previous comment of mine on a different article:
    There are two fundamental things that must change for South Africa to recover from the slippery slope it is on:
    1. The system of proportional representation. We must go back to the system of geographic constituencies which will ensure personal accountability on the ground; and
    2. Cadre deployment, which must be declared unconstitutional and therefore illegal.
    Both of those issues are however so deeply entrenched that I have little hope that it will ever change. Politicians appointed by their parties (including those from opposition and minority parties) will not readily give up their positions to face the scrutiny of voters directly, while incompetent and unqualified deployed cadres will cling to their appointments at all costs.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    This article so right, and is moving in the direction that our understanding needs to take. Put simply: any real democracy is not about political POWER, but about political REPRESENTATION. Until we have a system which is founded on and structured around this understanding, we cannot say that we have, or are living in a democracy. I have been here before, several times, but it seem that the notion that putting a cross in a box every 5 years means democracy is so deeply embedded that even the most sophisticated political commentators insist that we enjoy a constitutional democracy. No democracy worthy of the name can hand over almost complete control of everything to a small elite bunch of whatever description. Our current notion of democracy is, as we see almost everywhere, a recipe for abuse and betrayal of the citizenry. No, rule by the people means rule by the people, with a freely elected parliament genuinely representing them and enacting and implementing laws and policies that truly serve the interests of the people. And democracy really doesn’t have any need for political parties; this is another area where we have been blinded by habit. It is actually quite bizarre that we leave governance to those perhaps least capable of it; the politicians. They, together with the civil servants are in the service of the people, who should actually govern.Yes, it will need a rethink of the entire system of governance, but surely that is not beyond us. I just wish I had more space 🙂

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