Tuesday, May 6, 2014

This sclerotic democracy in need of fresh blood

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06 May 2014 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive

The contrast between the ‘ancient’ political leadership of young democratic South Africa and the younger leaders of the old world is revealing, writes Tony Leon

A BIG difference between our "negotiated revolution" that preceded the April 27 1994 elections and the "Velvet Revolution" that swept Eastern Europe five years before was the positioning of the communists. In the crumbling Soviet Union and its Iron Curtain satellites, they were the oppressors; here at home, they were a mainstay of liberation.

A chronicler of the Polish struggle for democracy from under the tyrant’s heel was historian and newspaper editor Adam Michnik. He observed of the struggle: "Most revolutions have two phases. First comes the struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. The second unleashes the worst; envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion and the urge for revenge."

President Jacob Zuma, right, shares a platform with US President Barack Obama at a press briefing at the Union Buildings, Pretoria, in June last year. Picture: GCIS
He could have been describing, with great accuracy, our country’s uneven trajectory over the past 20 years. And on Wednesday, when South Africans vote, the African National Congress (ANC) will hope to be rewarded again for its leading role in the first phase, while the opposition will hope that voters will hold the government to account for the second phase. Not least of the multiple paradoxes of South Africa and the dominance of the ANC is its responsibility for both of them.

But there is another echo between the undemocratic and anciens régimes of Eastern Europe and the democratic leaders at home whose smiling faces will greet voters on the ballot papers on Wednesday. A striking feature of both leaderships is their relative elderliness. One of many reasons for the fall of the Soviet satellites was the out-of-touch decrepitude of their rulers, who could not fathom the yearning for freedom of the restless young demonstrators who confronted them. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985, he was the last in his line, but also the youngest (at 54). He intuited better than any predecessor that the old way of doing business was unsustainable and needed reform.

In South Africa, a youthful democracy and a country with a famous "youth bulge", the present political leadership is pretty ancient: the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi tops the age scales at 85 years old, followed by the ANC’s Jacob Zuma (72), Agang SA’s Mamphela Ramphele (66), the Congress of the People’s Mosiuoa Lekota (65), and the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) Helen Zille (63).

For a ruling party that obsessively practises the policy of reflecting national demographics in all areas, it is just as well it has not used age as a yardstick for leadership, given this near monopoly of sexagenarians and septuagenarians at the top of the leadership pile. Strikingly, only 8% of the electorate is more than 60 years old.

The exception in this group is the enfant terrible of our politics, Julius Malema, who is destined to become the third man of our politics when the votes are counted on Wednesday night. At just 33 years old, he bucks this trend, but then again, his ideas are so old and discredited and borrowed from Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez that he compensates for his youthful vigour with the dead hand of failed policies lifted from a failed state.

The contrast between young democratic South Africa and the old world is again revealing: US President Barack Obama is just 52 years old, British Prime Minister David Cameron is 47 and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel is younger than 60. In the nondemocratic world, both China’s Xi Jinping (60) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (61) are younger than all our leaders, bar Malema.

This election, then, will be the last fought by the present leaders, and their replacements, over the next few years, will tell us a great deal about the future politics of South Africa. But that is the concern for the days after Wednesday, although the staleness of the present political debate indicates that some leadership refreshment would move things along.

What about Wednesday? The ANC goes to the polls in its most defensive position in 20 years. The decades in power and the compromises and corruption of high office weigh upon it, although these will only dent its huge support base somewhat.

Only the DA, which, despite uneven messaging and the early Agang SA debacle, has managed to project both strength and diversity in its campaign, can mount any form of credible challenge against the ruling Goliath. The ANC has pumped its "good news to tell" story, although as Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib pointed out last week, this is pushing against an open door. Noting the inarguable improvements in life here since 1994, he said waspishly: "But that’s a comparison with a system which was declared a ‘crime against humanity’."

If you set the bar at ankle level, it’s easy to jump over it.

While we know the overall, and even all the provincial results, in advance of the ballots being counted, exact percentages could still surprise us and might breathe some fresh life into our somewhat sclerotic democracy.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA


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