A couple of asides as I tinker away at a framework for assessing Sunday’s Cabinet announcement.

EFF

The media noise surrounding Helen Zille’s putative attitude towards Lindiwe Mazibuko is interesting, but largely because it is so loud.

In the last hour I have been asked twice (by journalists) for an opinion on Mmusi Maimane‘s acceptance of nomination to the position of DA Parliamentary Leader.

Not long ago I would have (privately) filed news of DA power-struggles and leadership changes under ‘white mischief’ and forgotten about it – confident that no client or journalist would ask for an opinion.

Real politics, the stuff that actually made a difference to legislative or regulatory outcomes, happened within the Tripartite Alliance or in the interactions between the ANC and business.

I think that was a useful shorthand that saved me time in the past, but clearly I will have to break the habit.

The Alliance no longer contains its own opposition – and is therefore no longer the primary site of politics.

The EFF, Amcu, whatever Numsa finally initiates and the DA all (healthily in my view) strip out a sort of multi-polar disorder from the ANC.

Politics will now (tend to) happen where it is meant to: on the streets and in parliament … and not where it previously tended to happen: in back room deals and as a result of other shenanigans in the ANC-led alliance.

There is an obvious trade-off between clarity of government policy/structure and the broadness of the ANC’s alliances. As those alliances break or simplify or are otherwise transformed I expect some kind of dividend for governance and economic policy.

If I might add …

Another habit of thought I might soon have to break is my instinctive intellectual pessimism about politics.

By ‘pessimism’ I do not mean an automatic assumption that politician are corrupt or incompetent.

What I mean is that I tend to think that politics changes little in the world, but that the world changes the politics.

I think this might make me some kind of market fundamentalist. I am certain that to grow, the DA will have to become more like the ANC – in its policy and in the class and racial character of its leadership.

The assumption (and maybe error) I make is believing that  the electorate purely aggregates the interests of broad groups of people and the political parties are compelled to reflect the character and interests of those groups.

So my ‘habit of thought” is that I assume that for a party to grow it will necessarily become more generic and bland.

Why this is ‘pessimistic’ (and I hope incorrect) is I tend to assume that our politics increasingly changes nothing (except to the negative) and parties endlessly drift towards a sort bland and generic centre in response to the ‘market’ of the bland and generic voters.

No wonder I was a secret reader of P J O’Rourke. He once observed in his normal right-wing, smug but hilarious way:

Now majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But like other precious, sacred things …. it’s not only worth dying for; it can make you wish you were dead. Imagine if all life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza.

P. J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, 1991

Why this is a bad habit

I worry that my instinctive attitude is a potentially serious error. I can see how this ‘political pessimism’ might be a useful short cut in relatively homogeneous and stable first-world countries.

The main parties in those countries blur into each other.

But recession and unemployment, even in those countries,  is inevitably accompanied by a growing divergence in the political arena – a shrinking of the centre and growth of radical nationalists and/or populists.

Surely this is a better permanent model for understanding South Africa?

I suspect our calm transition and the stable predictability of the ANC and it’s comfortable electoral majority might have lulled me into a false sense of security.

Who could not smile at the jaunty red boiler-suits, gumboots and maid’s outfits adorning the mostly young EFF members being sworn in to parliament yesterday?

I am delighted the EFF are there and I think it is healthy for our politics that the ANC will have to contest with the EFF in the minds of voters and in the national and provincial assemblies.

Rather that than the nodding and winking and/or furious factional splits that have gone on up until now in the closed shop of the ANC.

But it should be front of mind that the ANC has to answer the challenge of the DA and of the EFF.

The ANC still has a safety margin and room for manoeuvre, but party leaders will have heard the howls in the night and are unlikely to just sit back staring into the fire hoping  for the best.

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