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As things fall apart, we must unite to ensure the political centre can hold

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Nicole Fritz was Political and Legal Counsel at Change Starts Now. She is the former executive director of the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF).

Radical action is how we hold up the centre. The path of the political reactionary is to abandon this centre, to sabotage it and pick it bare, to attack it and its institutions expediently for short-term political advantage. 

It is election season and so it is to be expected that political parties will offer up issues for dispute and division. Still, given what is at stake, it is hard not to be despairing — not so much at the pettiness of the cause for altercation and inflammation (bad though that is) but at the desolate, constrained nature of the vision for our country’s future revealed by those disagreements.

The DA appeals to those it identifies as its international friends for help with election monitoring at a moment when global developments, unfolding atrocities and the complicity therein of many of the recipients of the DA’s plea makes it seem especially disingenuous to claim as the DA does in its letters that when “democracies work together to preserve a rules-based order that promotes democracy, individual freedom, political franchise and universal human rights, nations thrive”.

The ANC counters that it might invite more of its “own friends” to observe the elections, leaving no one in doubt that it means the likes of Russia, fresh off an obviously stage-managed election and having recently slain its most prominent opposition leader.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Putin Warns Russia Won’t Stop After Predictable Election Win

That engagement should give us all pause: what does it mean when our two largest political parties believe that they have better friends and helpmates in foreign states than they do in those across the parliamentary aisle with whom they share the duty of representing the people of this nation and upholding the country’s Constitution?

Public lipservice

It isn’t just in matters relating to foreign relations that these two parties seem to take every chance they get principally to demonstrate their sworn enmity. Take the matter of the Western Cape Powers Bill — a case of manufactured outrage if ever there was. DA leader John Steenhuisen announced that the proposed law would protect South Africans from a failed state. The ANC says the intention of the bill is to seek a separate apartheid state.

The truth is that the bill is and can do neither of these things. It has been drafted principally, it seems, for electioneering purposes by the DA and has been energetically seized upon, and its dangers overstated, by the ANC for exactly similar reasons.

The two largest political parties aren’t the only players of this exceedingly dangerous game.  By all accounts, the recent Daily Maverick’s The Gathering panel of Justice Minister, Ronald Lamola, various members of the Multiparty Charter and other opposition figures was terrifying for the insane squabbling and animosity that characterised the exchange. Deservedly, it allowed Lamola to remark: “Here’s your coalition government”.

Watch Daily Maverick’s The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four edition

Writing up the discussion, Marianne Merten noted that “politicians are politicians and at the end… all smiled and shook hands”. Indeed, several politicians from opposing parties are said to have very cordial, even warm personal relations in sharp contrast to their public engagements.

This seems to make matters more sinister, not less: that political actors feign deep, unsparing enmity as a performance for the public — because they believe it to be an act to which the public responds positively and not because that enmity is sincere — should have us reflecting on whether those leading our politics do so with any developed sense of responsibility for the country and people they wish to lead.

This type of politics, and the engagement it represents, seems so unequal to the enormity of what South Africa needs to accomplish if we are to realise a viable country that holds out a real, livable future for all its people. More critically this politics is entirely destructive of any vision for South Africa to be that country.

Outdated, underdeveloped state

Take the concept of the democratic state and its critical meaning for South Africa. Globally, the idea of the state has evolved over generations: initially, it was understood as a guarantor of the safety and security of its inhabitants, having a monopoly on force; later, it was conceptualised to protect and uphold civil and political rights associated with personal freedom and self-determination. Still later, it was developed to entail the provision of a social security net — the so-called “welfare state”.

Truth be told, the South African state can never be said to have met these demands in respect of its populace even if, post-1994, there have been more and less serious efforts to do so.

If South Africa is to offer a viable future for all its people, we don’t have the luxury of time through which the state evolves and capacitates itself to meet these various demands: we must construct the present-day state so that it meets all these requirements simultaneously.

Add to this the demands of our uniquely traumatic past, and any functional South African state will also have to meaningfully deliver on concepts of redress and redistribution.

For all these reasons the demands on the South African state are very much greater, not less, than those weighing on developed states, such as France or Canada. The benchmark for us can never be that we demonstrate some rudimentary facsimile of the evolution of those states.

We will also have to construct and rebuild our state in such a way that we can meet all these obligations at a time when a host of new, unprecedented technologies and resources, even as they offer opportunities for innovation and efficiency, very clearly pose potential threats for state construction and consolidation.

Holding up the centre 

In this context, the really radical idea is how we support and enable the state so that it might do all these things. The radical action is how we hold up the centre, understanding the centre not as some tepid, political middle ground occupied by political middlemen and women, but conceptualised as the state that is increasingly frail and brittle but which must be reinforced and expanded if we are ever to have the country we hope for.

The path of the political reactionary is to abandon this centre, to sabotage it and pick it bare, to attack it and its institutions expediently for short-term political advantage.

Holding up and building out the centre will require a new alignment of political forces actively looking to find consensus and consolidation in how we do this. So large and important a plan will require as much support and agreement as we can possibly facilitate.

That doesn’t mean consensus at any cost: a large number of South Africa’s political entities place themselves outside of any ambit for consensus in their clear repudiation of the Constitution — their unashamed incitement of violence to achieve political ends; their traffic in prejudice and discrimination.

For several of those of us who joined Change Starts Now (CSN), this was always the central animating appeal. At its inception it represented the hope of a new constellation of forces: Roger Jardine made clear at the launch that he hoped several of the ANC’s stalwarts and veterans might join this political movement. Certainly, discussions that preceded the launch indicated that this was no idle hope.

And while media reports often misrepresented the nature of Roger and his team’s discussions with the DA, and what exactly was being proposed, it is clear that real efforts were being made, from several quarters, to forge a new broad alignment of political forces.

Tragically and in very short order those attempts to fashion a new constellation came to naught. Those of us involved must take collective responsibility for much of how and why that transpired. But disappointing as that experience was and is for those of us involved, we remain convinced that it is only these types of efforts that will get us in our lifetimes to a South Africa in which all her people have a real home and future.

While CSN ultimately withdrew from contesting these upcoming elections, in the short time it sought to play a role electorally it offered up important and so far unprecedented ideas in the political party space, such as a wealth tax and an emergency reconstruction and growth fund.

These flowed from recognition of the desperate need both to unlock economic growth and to address our urgent social crisis. We can’t allow people to die of hunger, we have to secure our water systems. But it is also absolutely imperative that we secure economic health so that South Africa can sustain investment in its people.

That any of this can be accomplished in South Africa without constructing and capacitating a strong, efficient state is a bit like believing that the US right now might model for us what democracy looks like.

And any idea that we might create this state and get to the South Africa we want — one in which unemployment, poverty and inequality are eradicated — in spite of our politics, is a bit like believing Russia might be our model. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gatiep Peterson says:

    There was never a centre in SA (besides the brief period the United Party ruled).

  • John Steenhuisen says:

    Shame, Nicole, fresh of her latest political failure, seeks to lecture those in the arena what they should/shoudn’t be doing. Little time for self introspection about her own political shortfalls. Perhaps Nicole, when you have actually achieved something in politics you can return and show us all how it should be done. But given your “all in” with the biggest political failure of this season you should rather sit this one out and leave it to the serous players, who actually have some political experience, to do what needs to be done. Let’s count the days till your next political incarnation…..

    • Henry Henry says:

      She will return to law to further sabotage with interdicts and applications efforts to curb crime….

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        John klipkop (the huis was stolen by Carl sonderhuis long ago) again displays what Beinart describes as American hubris, and characteristic ‘roadkill’ testosterone … in his response to Nicole’s well articulated arguments ! Once a klipkop … always a klipkop ?

  • ST ST says:

    We all know the centre in any relationship works, if you want that relationship to work. It’s called compromise. SA needs that. The world needs that. Refusing to accept that has led to breakdown of personal and social relationships for centuries. We pass on our ignorance to our children, we wonder why things don’t change.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    In my opinion, it was political meddling which created apartheid, political meddling which created BEE, injured our electricity supply and pushed union rights at the expense of the unemployed. So how about this… a state which stops meddling, gets out of the way and lets SA find a natural, organic centre of our own.

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