Sunday, September 28, 2014

Populism is the wrong solution, but it might rattle the right cages

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28 Sep 2014 | Tony Leon | Sunday Times

Most Ninety-one year olds would probably consider it an achievement to get up in the morning, have a cup of tea and watch television. But Dr Henry Kissenger, former US Secretary of State, decided it was a good age to produce a new book, in this case a 432- page door stopper entitled, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History.
Actually, as Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, noted in his review of Dr Kissenger’s tone it could more accurately be entitled” World in Disorder”. Mad jihadists of the Islamic State beheading western journalists, a very reluctant (‘ambivalent’ is Kissenger’s phrase) US hyper-power re-engaging in a war in the Middle East in response; Russia throwing out the post -cold war settlement by invading neighbouring Ukraine, Israelis and Palestinians fighting an endless conflict, China upsetting its neighbours, Japan militarising, Iran nuclearizing, and anarchic permafrost settling upon the once hopeful Arab Spring.  In West Africa the once contained and rare Ebola virus has leapfrogged borders.  It has mutated from an epidemic  to a life-shattering endemic disease which, according to this week’s  forecast of the US Centre for Disease Control and Infection could get far worse by orders of magnitude killing hundreds of thousands of people and ‘embedding itself in the human population for years to come’.

Difficult indeed, in these hard times, to be optimistic about the world and human conditions.  But according to the well-credentialed contrarian Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, there’s actually more realistic hope about than at any other time in human  history.”The world might have gone to hell” he writes, “but it is getting much better”: the average person (meaning someone somewhere in the poor world ) lives about a third longer than he or she did fifty years ago and buries two thirds fewer of his or her children and the amount of food available per continent has risen dramatically,  so that famine, once a semi-permanent condition in the third world is in fact today rare ‘despite a doubling of the population since the early 1960’s.

But even if, objectively, the human condition has improved, the body politic appears diseased.  The institutions designed to improve the global order seem stuck in the past and unfitted for the present, never mind the future.  The United Nations is paralysed to act on the new threats to the planet such as climate change.  The World trade Organisation meant to harmonise global trade abandoned the Doha round after a decade of wrangling . The International Monetary Fund’s inability to reflect the economic realities of 2014 rather than 1945, has seen the rising powers of the South establish its own vehicle for development in the form of the BRICS Bank.

And when it comes to national politics, we see the rise of populism practically everywhere: nearly half of Scotland last week surrendered to its siren call, the once-fascist National Front in France is on the up and up, and even that bell weather of humane social democracy Sweden has seen the rise of nativist racist parties.  But as Philip Collins  wrote in The Times what we are witnessing in the world is ‘’the bacterium of anti-politics”. When you give up on traditional parties bringing real change to your life or the national condition you embrace the virus of anti-establishment organisations.

This rather dark global lens was given local resonance in a recent talk at the Cape Town Press Club by author –journalist Ray Harltey. He was speaking in the wake of the charm offensive launched in its rather traditional confines the week before by uber-populist Julius Malema. Far from infantalising politics as he is accused of doing, Juju had played his audience  and fine -tuned his message with the assurance of a political Stradivarius.

The far quieter but equally assured Harltey reminded us of the vast numbers of South Africans who have succumbed to the virus of anti-politics by opting out of the system entirely: of the 36m South Africans who could have registered and voted in the last election only 18m actually did so and of that total, the ruling ANC received only 11m votes, a far more modest haul than its apparent supremacy suggests. This led former parliamentarian, Dr Denis Worall to conclude, that while the “lords of Luthuli House” (to borrow the phrase of the DA Chief Whip) fixate on how to fix Malema, good and proper, we should actually thank Malema for ‘’making Parliament more relevant.”

After all when did you last hear the ANC Secretary General fussing about ‘’the dignity of parliament” as Gwede Mantahse recently did? When in fact did the ruling party last worry about parliament at all? Populism and its nasty noise and tactics can do much damage, but perhaps in the corroded corridors of power in South Africa, it might also be rejuvenating.



Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Big Read: The centre cannot hold

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25 Sep 2014 | Tony Leon | Times Live

I saw Alex Salmond, the "loser" of last week's exciting Scottish independence referendum, in action when I went to Britain in May 1997 to observe the country's shape-shifting general election campaign, which resulted in the Labour Party sweeping out 18 years of Conservative Party rule.

"It was as though David Cameron's gift box had been wrapped by Pandora herself"

Tony Blair would do nothing in that election to alarm "Middle England" and provided carefully scripted sound bites of thudding dullness as he marched to power. But it was during a campaign stop that Salmond - leading the then obscure Scottish National Party, with only three seats in Westminster - aptly captured, in his "cheeky chappy" way, the haplessness of the incompetent administration of Prime Minister John Major.

He declared that attacking the Tories was "as difficult as shooting fish in a barrel", before reeling off a list of their perceived sins.

His party's number of seats doubled in that election, although he could only have dreamed then that 10 years later he would be installed as first minister of Scotland, a post equivalent to our provincial premiers but with powers that make the local equivalents drool with envy. The Scottish parliament, under the very generous terms of Britain's devolution arrangements enacted in 1998, controls its own policies and practices on law and order, health and social services, the environment and education and, under the Scotland Act of 2012, controls 10% of its income tax revenue.

Though not even the "prophet" TB Joshua could have divined the 10% margin by which Scottish voters would reject Salmond's proposal for Scotland to go it alone as an independent state, a few weeks ago a poll suggested that he would, in fact, win and that the 307-year-old United Kingdom would split apart.

Prime Minister David Cameron, alarmed by this poll, then did what his stockbroker father's profession knows best to do when the market starts to slide: when it's time to panic, make sure that you panic first.

Two weeks before the first vote was cast, and backed by the leaders of the two main opposition parties, Cameron offered further concessions to keep Scotland in the union. With an unspecified package called devo max, he basically made it clear that, other than reserving foreign affairs and defence for Westminster, Scotland could pretty much do its own thing if it stayed in the UK.

But as though his gift box had been wrapped by Pandora herself, he would win on Thursday only to find that he had unwound the basis of Britain's constitution. On the basis of the sauce for the Scottish goose is sauce for the English and Welsh gander (never mind Northern Ireland), it became apparent that similar powers would be demanded by the rest of the kingdom.

So while Salmond, in an act rarely seen in these parts, took personal responsibility for the failure of his campaign by announcing that in November he would quit his government and leadership posts, in fact he won much of the argument and more of the power, even as he lost the poll.
Coincidentally, Friday's high-drama announcements in Edinburgh happened on the day on which the South African Police Service announced its annual crime statistics.

For Western Cape, it was mostly an unremittingly grim, gruesome picture, with murders up 12.8%, aggravated robbery increasing 16.7% and rises in car thefts and drug-related crimes.

Strangely enough, in terms of his extremely limited powers if not his title, the province has a cabinet-ranked MEC for safety and security, the aptly named Dan Plato. But in comparison with his opposite number in Scotland (or any province in Canada, for example), in constitutional terms, he lives on another planet, able to do little more than issue statements of concern.

Despite the opposition controlling this province there is little it can do in terms of innovative policing to change anything. Power is exercised from Pretoria.

Once upon a time in South Africa, the ANC had a compelling slogan, "The people shall govern". After 20 years of its highly centralised rule, one could today add the caveat "except where the ANC does not".
And so any ideas of localism or devolution are not entertained.

Even the lowly matter of the province commissioning an inquiry into the multiple policing failures of crime-infested Khayelitsha (one of the province's hot spots) was wrung from the national authorities only on pain of an adverse court order. And, of course, Pretoria is free to ignore its recommendations.
In this age of personal devolution obtained from the click of a computer mouse or an app of a smartphone the world, and not just Scotland, is moving inexorably in the direction of "local is lekker". The idea that "one size fits all" will soon go the way of the woolly mammoth.

Is Pretoria listening?
More pertinently, does it care?

Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook:


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

DA needs to make principles relevant to SA

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Tony Leon | 7 September 2014 | The Sunday Independent

Johannesburg - Twenty five years ago this week, on September 6, 1989, I was elected for the first time to Parliament. Admittedly, this event was a great moment to me personally and, just perhaps, to my constituents in Houghton, Johannesburg, who had entrusted their parliamentary interests to a then 32-year-old local city councillor, than to the nation.
South Africa was back then a country at war with itself – and largely isolated from the world which had turned its back on the apartheid state.

Tony Leon during his days as leader of the opposition in Parliament. Now, looking in, he warns his former party that they must take measures which will improve people s lives and life chances. Picture: Sophia Stander
The central feature of politics then was the failure of government to set in train the basis for a negotiated resolution of democratic rights for the majority, who at the time of my election were excluded from the magic circle reserved for whites (and in lesser form for Indians and Coloureds) to freely choose their public representatives to institutions which mattered.
Even the centrality of the sovereign parliament to which I had just been elected to enact meaningful legislation and process executive regulations was deeply contested, and not simply by the extra-parliamentary opposition at home, in the form of the surging United Democratic Front (UDF) and the liberation movements, principally the ANC in exile and in prison .

A previous leader of my party, Dr Van Zyl Slabbert had dramatically resigned less than four years before the hinge-of-history 1989 election declaring that the Parliament to which I had just been elected was “a hopelessly flawed and failed constitutional experiment (which) does not begin to solve the problem of political domination; in fact it compounds it”.
The Democratic Party (DP), on whose ticket I had been elected, broadly agreed with this analysis but believed that the legal platforms for participation should be used to fight for change.

However, while retrospect makes the pathway forward seems obvious, there were no clear indications in September 1989 that South Africa was about to undergo the most profound change in centuries.
The most important consequence of that election was the inauguration of a new state president. I arrived in Parliament directly from lecturing at the University of Witwatersrand.

The reason for the overwhelming white face of the student body was a result of government policy enforced by its conservative education minister, named FW de Klerk.
Thus, when Parliament gathered for its first sitting day on February 2, 1990, to listen to President De Klerk, few on the opposition benches inside and the far mightier anti-NP forces outside, had any great expectation of change.

The major opposition in Parliament was on De Klerk’s right flank, in the form of the rejectionist Conservative Party which had in two elections eaten into the NP support base and constituted a much more significant electoral threat than the reformist DP.
In one 40-minute speech, De Klerk did something which not one of his five NP predecessors had done: like them he could read the proverbial writing on the wall; unlike them he did not presume it was addressed to someone else.

De Klerk’s acceptance of change and a process of constitutional negotiations with the real leaders and movements of the majority changed this country forever and, other – doubtless unintended – results would see him removed from the presidency within four years. But he also upended the terms of trade for the opposition.
By 1994, the Conservative Party, whose tactical inflexibility was entirely in keeping with its inflexible ideology, had ceased to exist in any parliamentary or political form.

And the 1994 election also saw the near-extinction of the DP which made it into the first democratic parliament only because its own proposal at the Kempton Park negotiations, that a 5 percent threshhold be reached for any party, had been rejected.
The DP’s political near-death experience was a result of two related political realities: part of its existing support base reasoned that since the NP had adopted most of its programme and could, in much stronger form protect their interests, they might as well vote NP.

The other part of its base, those whose moral repugnance for apartheid had caused them to reject the NP, even in its rejuvenated form, could now vote for the clearest alternative to it, the ANC .
After the 1994 election I had the task of picking up the shattered pieces of the DP when I was elected its leader, at a time when few thought there were realistic prospects for its survival. Yet within a decade, the NP would also join the elephant’s graveyard occupied by once dominant parties which could not adapt to changing circumstances.

Something very similar had happened to the once dominant United Party, which had governed South Africa for decades before 1948 and had been the party of opposition choice for whites for three decades thereafter. It had disappeared entirely by 1989.

Outside of white politics, something very similar happened later to the once hugely relevant Pan Africanist Congress and the intellectually impressive Black Consciousness Movement, both today relics of history.
Fast forward to today, and the forces of opposition are at once familiar and very different. The DP’s successor, the Democratic Alliance, holds the position of official opposition.

It is an amalgam of the DP and NP and has added a slice of black voters to its traditional base. But it is neither populist nor particularly ideological. It offers to protect the constitution and does so in its parliamentary role and, increasingly, through the legal processes such as its successful endeavours to obtain the “spy tapes”.
It is opposed to the ANC but has, simultaneously, adopted many of its policies in an attempt to obtain greater traction among wavering supporters of the ruling party. It is also hemmed in by demographic realities: despite having a deeper bench of viable black leaders, it remains vulnerable to siren calls that it is a “white party”.

Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – whatever his ethical shortcomings – is uninhibited by any of these constraints. He does not have a diverse support base whose interests have to be carefully balanced. But he also has a much larger potential electoral hinterland than the current, much bigger, DA.
He is, as the country and the world witnessed three weeks ago, unconstrained by the niceties of parliamentary convention. His ideology, largely borrowed from his hero, Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez, is economically unsustainable, but has the appeal of instant gratification to the many economically dispossessed in low-growth, under- skilled and job-shedding South Africa.

Might he then be the next leader of the opposition, and how does the DA prevent itself following the road to irrelevance of so many other once dominant, now extinct, political movements in South Africa?
Van Zyl Slabbert once warned that “you can’t out Mau Mau the Mau Mau”. That is the first lesson which the DA needs to adapt.

It can’t out EFF the EFF nor fight on the ground which the ANC chooses for it.
Second, it needs to make its principles relevant to the realities of South Africa today. It needs to fashion its once distinctive ideology of freedom, equality of choice and opportunity – three of whose pillars neither the ANC nor EFF bother with at all – and take them into the thick of the fight now raging around this country’s future.

And these are not simply slogans. They need true believers and leaders, think tanks and measures which demonstrably will improve people’s lives and life chances.
It’s not easy but it can be done. The alternative is questions around relevance which, as our history suggests, leads over time to oblivion.

* Leon is SA’s former ambassador to Argentina. He was an MP from 1989 to 2009 and leader of the Democratic Party and Democratic Alliance from 1994 to 2007.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

DA needs to meet challenge posed by EFF’s antics

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03 Sep 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Malema actually stands for something, writes Tony Leon, who is not sure if the official opposition greatly supports any causes

YOU would need to be a very old South African — about 80 years old — to remember the last time the official opposition in Parliament won an election and went directly from the opposition side of the aisle to the seat of government.

Leaving aside the issue of the racial, restrictive franchise that pertained here until 1994, the last occasion when the largest opposition party in Parliament made this transition was 66 years ago, on May 26 1948. This was when DF Malan was elevated from leader of the official opposition to prime minister.

DA national spokesman Mmusi Maimane outside the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday
Of course, there was a change in both national and party power when Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress won the 1994 election and swept Malan’s successor movement, the National Party (NP), from its 46-year occupation of the government. But that required the entire previous system to be scrapped, via the so-called "negotiated revolution", before it could happen. This underlines the glacial nature of in-system electoral change here.

After the end of the first session of South Africa’s democratic parliament in December 1994, I led a small delegation of Democratic Party (DP) MPs to a lunch meeting with then president Nelson Mandela in Pretoria. On the agenda was our concern with various start-up problems affecting the workings of the National Assembly. Since Mandela famously had both an open door policy towards some of his democratic opponents and a lively regard for Parliament and its workings, he seemed the right person to address these concerns. No one at that meeting could have imagined the pit into which parliamentary proceedings would descend 20 years later.

But what I had not quite appreciated that day when the DP lunched with the president was what a close study Mandela had made of South Africa’s parliamentary history. As we listed ailments then affecting Parliament, trivial from the vantage point of today, Mandela brought the lunch to a stop. He disarmingly reminded us that the ANC had transitioned from struggle to power without the benefit of any preparation. As he put it that day: "The ANC went straight from the bush into power." By contrast, he recalled: "The NP served a long period in opposition in Parliament before assuming power."

How does this history lesson sit with the present leader of the opposition and the 15th holder of the post since Malan, Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance (DA)? He has some advantages and, perhaps, more disadvantages. While he had no parliamentary experience before his appointment, the party he leads has long experience in opposition and parliamentary tactics. He leads a team of 88 MPs in the National Assembly, slightly more than FW de Klerk’s National Party had in 1994.

But the NP in opposition, and two of its three predecessors as official opposition — the Conservative Party of Andries Treurnicht and the United Party of De Villiers Graaff — provided a salutary counterpoint to the illusory comfort the strength-in-opposition numbers seemingly provided. For different reasons, those parties disappeared entirely from the political scene when their political relevance became the dominant narrative. What lessons might Maimane and his lieutenants draw from their demise?

The first was offered to me by then NP secretary-general Roelf Meyer shortly after the lunch with Mandela. He confidently asserted that the NP supporters secured by his party in 1994 — just more than 20% of the electorate — would stick with the party "because they have nowhere else to go".

The DP had other ideas and, despite being 10 times smaller than the NP, would within five years eclipse it, take it over and effectively remove it from the political scene entirely. This was not due just to the more muscular approach to opposition politics that the DP adopted compared with the supine ambivalence of the NP of the time. It was essentially because, shorn of power and bereft of ideology, it had little to offer. Its central role in the system of apartheid also weighed it down.

Maimane and the DA’s dilemma — of having the largest number of opposition seats but being knocked off the front pages and social media spaces by the antics of the enfant terrible of the new politics, Julius Malema — is a question of asymmetry. Size does not always count in either life or politics. This was relayed to me the other day by a former colleague, herself a veteran of decades on the opposition benches and now retired.

She told me how she was listening on the radio to this "most articulate man … who perfectly captured my own thinking around (President) Jacob Zuma, Nkandla and the public protector". Then, she said, "to my horror the interviewer thanked Julius Malema for the interview".

So even those who would never dream of voting for him, bedrock DA supporters, find in Malema’s advocacy, and even perhaps some of his shocking tactics, points of agreement, even admiration. Malema will not poach from the DA’s voting pool, but if the party’s supporters perceive it to be ineffectual, some may simply drift away from political participation. But Malema’s advocacy will have a direct and negative effect on the DA’s ability to reach beyond its present base and tap into the growing pool of disaffected ANC supporters, precisely the group needed to ensure that the DA is not marooned forever, like Graaff and all his successors in title, on the opposition benches.

In Vladimir Lenin’s famous phrase, "What’s to be done?" the DA needs to reinvigorate Parliament. Its MPs need to "own issues". This is not about issuing press statements, but waking up every morning and determining how to find a credible issue, become the expert on it and spend time with other experts. They need to have the passion, the knowledge and the commitment to be the lead voice on the matters that matter.

The other asymmetrical problem Maimane faces is peculiar to his party set-up. He leads the opposition in Parliament but he does not lead his party outside of it. Whatever the merits of this arrangement originally, it is now way past its sell-by date.

Finally, there is the matter of ideology. What inspires the average DA MP? Is it job security for the next four years? A yearning to change things? A dislike of the ANC or the president? Perhaps all these things. But what great causes today does the DA stand for?

Malema, his theatrics aside, actually stands for something. It’s radical, impractical and ultimately ruinous. But it does resonate with many in the ranks of the dispossessed and the left-behind in South Africa.

The DA certainly is in opposition to the ANC but seems to have embraced large chunks of its philosophy, from transformation to the black economic empowerment scorecard. Though it wants the terms of trade changed, it is not confident enough to provide an entirely different world view. If you are in a 51-49 political outcome, such fudging of ideological barriers makes tactical sense. But given the 40 points separating the DA from the ANC, it does not.

There are many examples of this, but one will suffice — the crucial question of jobs. The ANC offers 5-million "job opportunities", while the DA promises the same number of "real jobs". This is a semantic distinction few understand. Better, as Clem Sunter suggested, to be the voice to create "1-million businesses" or become the champion of the market (not just business) to offer real economic liberation. That provides both a distinction and a difference.

A real alternative, to borrow a phrase, needs to offer a choice, not an echo.

Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: