Defend Truth


The elections are our chance to redeem politics by voting for the collective good


Craig Bailie holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from Rhodes University and a certificate in Thought Leadership for Africa’s Renewal from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He is the founding director of Bailie Leadership Consultancy.

If we hope to change how we practice politics in South Africa, we must first change our thinking about politics. By ‘redeeming politics’ I mean, specifically, transforming how we think about politics as an institution, as separate from what we think about politicians and how they do politics.

In the past, when I was still teaching politics, my answer to the question of what I did for a living would often be met with a sigh of despair, followed quickly by a remark about corruption. I would retort, “Remember, there’s a difference between a politician and someone who teaches politics.”

Do you think of politics as an inherently dirty business that, therefore, means those who don’t want to get dirty must avoid involvement with politics altogether, and that those who are involved must be dirty or be willing to get dirty? Do you think of politics as a necessary evil?

I think it’s fair to say that, generally, people find it easier to be cynical about politics than not. This is because central to politics is the accumulation, distribution and exercise of power. When people without restraint or virtue have power, they are inclined to abuse it.

It wasn’t for nothing that English Catholic historian, politician and writer Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Where there’s an abuse of power, the graver the abuse, the greater the dejection, desperation and/or anger of the victims of the abuse and the more tarnished the image of the institution in which or through which the abuse takes place. Politics is no exception.

In present-day South Africa, even the most optimistic among us risk slipping into a momentary depression, if, having suspended hope (perhaps even unknowingly so), we reflect long and hard on our country’s political affairs. The temptation to be discouraged grows when thinking about what South Africa could have looked like 30 years after the country’s first democratic elections and comparing that image to what we see before us today.

Search the internet for “South Africans are tired of politics” and you’ll find evidence of the cynicism surrounding politics in our country.

You will find headlines like, “Young South Africans aren’t apathetic, just fed up with formal politics”; “Citizens tired of being played for a fool”; “South Africans are sick and tired of petty politics”; “fed up with their prospects, and their democracy”; “sick of corruption”; and “Impossible to get better results with same tired politicians”.

The increasingly negative perception of politics and politicians in South Africa explains why, during a social media campaign address by Rooies Strauss, the “Deputy Servant Leader” of the recently launched political party, #Hope4SA, Strauss repeatedly tells his audience that he’s not a politician – this, despite his gunning for the position of minister of police.

#Hope4SA is an offshoot of Time2RiseSA. Time2RiseSA presents itself as a “movement” operating beyond the realm of party politics.

It was at a Time2RiseSA gathering in Bloemfontein last year, that South Africa’s former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said he would become South Africa’s president someday, without contesting for the position through an electoral process.

How we think about politics affects our politics

What we think and believe about politics and politicians and how we understand the relationship between them is important because it has implications, first, for whether we do politics, second, for why we do politics, and third, for how we do politics.

On the matter of whether we do politics, think about the fact that in 2019, for the first time in post-1994 South Africa, less than 50% of eligible South Africans voted in the national and provincial elections.

The local government elections held two years later “witnessed the lowest turnout for democratic elections in South Africa”. 

When it comes to the why of doing politics, consider an article that the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) published in 2015 – “When I grow up I want to be corrupt!” 

The ISS shares preliminary research findings which showed that “for some young South Africans, the perception has been created that a job in government means access to lucrative business and an “easy way” to make money.” 

Just because voter turnout has declined since 1994, doesn’t necessarily mean South Africans have become less politically active. 

What is certain, however, is that South Africans – or at least some South Africans – have changed the way they do politics. In South Africa, the how of doing politics has become increasingly violent.

In 2015, Professor of Politics at Stellenbosch University, Nicola de Jager, warned that “South Africa is in danger of becoming a radicalised society”. 

Protest action against poor service delivery hasn’t just become increasingly prevalent, leading to South Africa being dubbed the “protest capital” of the world, but many of the protests have been characterised by violence and the destruction of property.

The July 2021 riots that left 350 people dead and cost the country’s economy more than R50-billion weren’t just violent, they were political.

More recently, Daily Maverick reported on the escalation of politically motivated contract killings in South Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Assassination nation – political contract killings escalate in KZN as hitmen are offered ‘job after job’

The danger of viewing politics as an inherently dirty business, or of viewing politics in misguided terms, is that we disengage or refrain from engaging in the very thing we ought to be more involved with (we don’t solve problems by avoiding them), or we engage in a manner that does more harm than good, if any good at all.

The need to change our thinking about politics 

If we hope to change how we practice politics in South Africa and, indeed, in other parts of the world, we must first change our thinking about politics. 

By “redeeming politics” I mean, specifically, transforming how we think about politics as an institution, as separate from what we think about politicians and how they do politics.

Democracy, for example, is a political institution, a particular way of going about politics. 

Research (see here, here and here) shows that democracy has become less attractive for many South Africans. Two-thirds of respondents in an Afrobarometer survey conducted shortly before the 2021 riots indicated, alarmingly so, a willingness to “forego elections if a non-elected government could provide improved security and better services”.

In their growing dislike for democracy, these same South Africans appear to have confused all that democracy stands for with the performance of democratically elected leaders. A democratically elected leader isn’t necessarily a democratic leader.

For democracy to function, the citizens of a democracy must use the opportunity they have been given to vote, to elect to political office men and women who they believe will govern democratically. This hasn’t happened in South Africa since as far back as 2009.

Defining politics

If we are to redeem our thinking about politics in South Africa, we must begin with how we define politics.

Politics involves the competition for and exercise of power, necessary for the management of resources and the creation and maintenance of order, without which humans cannot survive or thrive.

This definition offers at least three further insights about politics that have the potential to change how we think about politics and do politics.

Politics isn’t inherently dirty or evil

There is nothing inherently dirty or evil about politics. Politics is necessary, but not a necessary evil. Similarly, there is nothing inherently wrong with or bad about the elements of politics that are essential for the management of resources and the creation and maintenance of order, namely, competition and power.

What matters, however, are the reasons why we do politics and how we go about politics.

Ideally, politics is about promoting human wellbeing

Politics becomes problematic when those involved lose sight of the ideal end objective of politics, which is to enhance human wellbeing, and instead, focus their decisions and actions on fulfilling self-interest or the interests of a select group.

The more this becomes a country’s political reality, especially among those occupying political office, the greater the potential for politics to become authoritarian and violent.

The value of a functioning democracy is that the competition for and exercise of power happens peacefully and inclusively, according to established rules, procedures and a division of labour (consider the separation of powers), all designed to restrain power and protect human rights.

Politics is inescapable and consequential

Because human survival and flourishing are bound up with politics, politics is an inescapable and highly consequential reality of human life. I recently heard someone quip, “Where there are two or more people, there you will find politics.”

This is true, if not by design, then because of circumstance. Where two or more are gathered, there one will find the question of “who gets what, when, where, how and why?”

The difference between a politician and anyone else is that the politician makes answering these questions in the civil context his or her occupation.

Political decisions, beginning with those made in the context of civil governance, have consequences for how we as a society live our daily lives (any load shedding today?), where we live, and whether we have a choice about where we live in the first place.

They can also have consequences for how a society practises politics. Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, said, “War is a mere continuation of policy [or politics] by other means.”

It’s because politics has far-reaching consequences that the late French army officer and statesman, Charles de Gaulle, said, “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians.”

The meaning, purpose, presence and impact of politics must not be lost on us as we approach election day. 

South Africans who vote on election day will be participating in the competition for power.

Those who vote for leaders and policies that will enhance rather than detract from human wellbeing will be exercising power for the collective good.

The greater the number of eligible voters who do this, the greater the potential for redeeming politics in South Africa.

Those who are eligible to vote, but refrain from doing so, fall short of giving all they can of themselves for the benefit of their loved ones and wider society, while failing to escape the inevitable impact of politics.

Organisational behaviourist, Niven Postma, published a book during the Covid pandemic that leaves us with a sobering reminder – even if you don’t do politics, politics will do you. DM


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