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Party politics is not the solution, your community is!

July 29, 2016 deur Ernst Roets


“Prof, I don’t agree with what you said in class now,” I heard the LLB-student say in front of the law building’s lecture hall. “Of course there is something such as a South-African identity.” The professor, clearly in the mood for the conversation, puts down his briefcase on the floor. “Very well, what does your South African identity entail? What do you have in common with South Africans who serve different gods than you, speak different languages than you, practises a different culture than you and live in different circumstances, other than that you coincidentally live in the same state?”

With the municipal elections around the corner everybody is once again talking about their South Africanism. In a recent discussion between AfriForum and a senior delegation of the ANC, we were strongly encouraged to embrace our South Africanism, to love it and to ensure that this is our ‘primary identity’. This made me think of one of the first radio interviews I had as AfriForum spokesperson. A group of fellow students and I protested at the Union Building against race classification. “But are you a proud South African?” the presenter asked me. It didn’t take much effort to answer ‘yes’. Today I wouldn’t answer the same question with the same confidence.

I particularly love this country. One must, however, distinguish between your devotion to the country in the broad sense of the word and the pride you have in your identity as a citizen of the South African state. The latter deals with your citizenship; your political identity under an ANC government.

Emigration is not an option for me. I love this country and the people in this country too much. I believe that we have to fight here for a better future. It is here that my ancestors died to create a better future for me, and I am of the resolution to do the same for my children.

This brings me to the state, South Africa…

The big disillusionment

Politically speaking, we all currently live under the effects of the entirely contradictory expectations created during the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s. The NP negotiators, under the leadership of F.W. de Klerk and Roelf Meyer, promised the minority that a new South Africa, under a new constitution, would bring about that minorities would be able to carry on living their normal lives and that the constitution would contain a whole string of ‘checks and counter measures’, which would prevent minorities from being oppressed. At one stage they even promised that the new constitution would see to it that there wouldn’t be a black majority government in South Africa. At the other end the ANC, under Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa, promised their supporters that the new South Africa would indeed boil down to a majority government. Black people would get back what was ‘stolen’ from them and a national, democratic revolution would be followed through with the power of the state. Or at least, that is what was promised.

Now everyone is disillusioned. The white minority is mad because they didn’t receive the protection that was promised to them and the black majority is mad because most black people are still poor and most white people are still rich. This, they believe, is the fault of white people.

The question is thus: What now?

South Africa has a dispensation problem

South Africa’s problem is not merely that there is a party in power which doesn’t rule in the best interests of the country. If it was that simple, it would’ve brought about that another ruling party would’ve been voted into power a long time ago and that the country’s biggest crises would’ve been ironed out relatively quickly. The practice proves that this assumption is incorrect, especially also in this election.

The point is this: South Africa has a dispensation problem, not a government problem. The problem is not who is elected to rule the country, but rather how the country as a whole is knocked together (and I accept that the politically correct reader’s jaw bone has, upon reading this sentence, made contact with the floor).

Why is South Africa incorrectly knocked together? There are many reasons, but let’s suffice for now with the analysis of dr. Nicholas Charron and Victor Lapuente. In their earth shattering article named ‘Does democracy produce quality government?’ Charron and Lapuente come to the conclusion that democracy is indeed the best form of government, but there is a catch: This applies to states that are generally thriving. Their research proves that democracy is not capable of solving the problems of states that stare great poverty and unemployment in the face. The short explanation for this is more or less as follows: Democracy is in essence a form of governing based on the principle of supply and demand. There must, in the first place, be a demand from the public for a good government. Then there must be a political institution that answers to this and indeed offers a good government. In poverty-stricken states there is usually a demand for poor government. A good government must make strategic decisions, lift people with skills out of poverty and generally invest in the future. People who don’t have food on their tables, however, are not interested in long-term economic investments. They would rather vote for whichever party spends the most on social grants – exactly the opposite of what a good government is supposed to do. The system is thus doomed to fail. And we are not even talking about the diversity of this country, the diverse language, cultural and religious communities, or the fact that all of these groups’ lives are now being organised by one big majority party.

Populism: A good election strategy requires a poor governing strategy

The result hereof is what we see now in all the big political parties. In essence it is about populism – whoever can be the most populistic, is also the person or party who receives the most support. And the EFF in not necessarily the forerunners. All the big parties have their own populistic strategies. The DA’s election strategy is a prime example. That the DA has changed its strategy is as clear as the light of day and they are regularly praised for this. The optimist would say that the DA is now focused on the greater group and thus follows a strategy that would unite more votes under them. The implication of the DA’s change in strategy, however, is that the party is in essence transformed into a party that is moving away from a supply of good government to a supply of poor government. This supply of poor government brings about that more people would vote for the party. Take, for example, the DA’s economic policy, especially their marketing campaign that the R140 499 000 000 that the ANC spent on social grants in 2016 is not enough. The DA says it will hand out R142 699 000 000!

This strategy would unite more votes in the DA, but it will also transform the DA into a less effective political institution. In the South African political landscape an effective election strategy is perforce a strategy that will lead to an ineffective government. Niall Ferguson presents the same argument, with reference to the decline of the West in general. He writes: “It is surprisingly easy to win the support of young voters for policies that would ultimately make matters even worse for them, like maintaining defined benefit pensions for public employees.” He continues: “A second problem is that today’s Western democracies now play such a large part in redistributing income that politicians who argue for cutting expenditures nearly always run into the well-organized opposition for one or both of two groups: recipients of public sector pay and recipients of government benefits.”

Does this mean that we are doomed into the precipice? Luckily not.

The power of a community

People in South Africa, but Afrikaners in particular, have their thoughts interweaved with party politics so much that they tend to see no solution other than party politics. And world politics has proven time and time again that it is the civil society (you and I and the organisations we are involved with) that makes a much bigger impact than political parties. The impact of civil society can be seen on macroscale such as the revolutions in the Arab Spring which can lead to the overthrowing of dictators, but also on microscale as in a community that starts their own private school, cleans up a park, fixes a pothole… the list is never-ending. In this regard AfriForum is – not only in South Africa, but across the globe – an example of the impact that the civil society can make. A senior ANC leader said in a meeting recently that AfriForum, with its do-it-yourself-actions and court victories, draw the lines within which the ANC must function.

Our solution is therefore not just to vote for a political party and then crack open a beer. Vote you can vote, but don’t think that this in itself is the solution. The old saying: “If you don’t vote you can’t complain,” is old-fashioned and misleading. It should be replaced with: “If you are not involved you can’t complain”. Our solution, rather, is to associate ourselves in unions and to do what our hands find to do, irrespective of whether the state does its job or not.

The French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, summarised it well back in the day:

“But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that…citizens execute every day with the aid of association?…The more it puts itself in place of associations, the more particular persons, losing the idea of association with each other, will need it to come to their aid…The mortality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere. Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

Alone we can accomplish many small things. Many small things can become a big thing when combined. An individual cannot change the future, but a community that stands together, builds their own institutions and takes their future into their own hands has a power far greater than any political party can ever dream of.

Ernst Roets

Ernst is the deputy CEO of AfriForum

Follow Ernst on Twitter at @ernstroets