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Opinionista

Politics has lost the direction and excitement it had at dawn of our democracy

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Charles Villa-Vicencio is professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town and a former visiting professor in conflict resolution at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He was Research Director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Whatever fix is offered by political parties in this election, a concern is whether these parties have the capacity and will to create a minimally decent society capable of generating hope for a better future.

Ethics, morals, and the need for decent behaviour are, in different ways, increasingly on the lips of aspirant politicians. Contributing to this are the looming elections, plus the desperation of an electorate that weighs up the reality of local and global politics.

Unable to cope existentially, we sentimentalise grandma’s simple distinction between right and wrong (and sometimes rationalise the social wrongs she failed to see!). We conjure up fanciful memories of the “good old days” when problems seemed less complicated than they are today.

Academic and philosophical notions of democracy aside, the political reality is dominated by personal and national feelings about a prevailing political situation.

This hankering for something better is seen throughout history, our religious heritage and, not least, our recent struggle for a country free of colonialism and apartheid, plus the inability of the current government to meet the expectations of our diverse and unequal country.

There is good reason to fear the disarray of the ANC, the persistence of the “whiteness” of the DA, and the apocalyptic utterances of the EFF — plus Zuma’s MK party.

A plethora of smaller parties, in turn, explore variations of Mayibuye iAfrika liberation politics that promise to stir the pot in the pending elections. The ultimate problem concerns the day after the May elections.

Whatever fix is offered by different political parties, a concern is whether these parties have the capacity and will to create a minimally decent society capable of generating hope for a better future. And,  yes, history tells us that such change is a slow and tedious process.

The question is which party is capable of at least nudging the ship of State in a new direction, ensuring that victims of all historic and contemporary sectors of society are on board — a huge ask that will take more than one election to realise. This party, coalition of parties or nascent party still waits to be born.

The reality is that none of the dominant parties are likely to do as well, or as badly, as some predict. A further question is whether or not emerging parties and independent candidates have the necessary organisational skills and resources to deliver aspirant voters to the polling station, and to actually vote?

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections hub

The manifestos of contesting parties make for interesting reading, with the Rise Mzanzi manifesto suggesting a more purposeful and thoughtful intent than most other parties. It offers a sense of renewal and inclusivity that neither the DA nor the ANC have achieved at a current leadership level.

Born within the context of the grassroots Rivonia Circle, Rise Mzanzi’s manifesto includes practical options that the not-so-grand coalition under the uneasy eye of the DA overlooks. Rise’s economic, racial and class sensitivities suggest an option worthy of consideration amidst the more-of-the-same message of tried-and-failed parties.

Coalition conundrum

The gridlock is which of the established or emerging parties have the organisational infrastructure to promote and fortify this vision?

Despite the recent failures of coalitions in provincial and municipal governance, the presence of “new blood” in the run-up to the elections, which includes Zackie Achmat, Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, and  Rise Mzansi’s Songezo Zibi, suggests a level of intellectual and organisational skills that offer alternatives to established politicking.

Agree or not with these voices, they deserve a fair hearing in democratic debate. The ownership of opposition politics, within and beyond those parties who have signed onto the Multi-Party Charter, aimed at unseating the ANC, could yet prove to be more divisive than uniting. The apparent presumption of the DA’s John Steenhuisen latest diatribe could yet come back to bite him.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA gets a glimpse of a Multi-Party Charter coalition post the May elections and it’s not pretty

Politics has lost the purpose and excitement it had at the dawn of our democracy. But let’s go back to the early birth pangs of democracy itself in classical Greek philosophy.

Discoveries of bouncing atoms and neuroscience aside, Epicurus (341-271 BCE) defined the pleasure of existence as the “absence of fear and pain”. Not a hedonist in the modern sense of revelry and greed, Epicurus argued that political goodness includes a deeper sense of happiness and purpose as a basis for pursuing material and other needs.

This involves an existential feeling of purpose that established parties have failed to kindle. This involves more than cold efficiency and erudite policymaking. The voting masses, both proletariat and elite, are ultimately driven by emotions and prejudices, perhaps more so than cerebral analysis.

If this essence (X-factor) fails to emerge in the pending election, the downward spiral of contemporary politics and the perpetuation of uncouth divisions in society is likely to take us closer to the destruction of the very foundation of democratic politics.

Working democracy and political realism is the only restraint we have to the escalation of violence and social turbulence. DM

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