There should be an age limit on staying in the political arena
7 Jan 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: Rand Daily Mail
CAPE Town in early January heaves with local and foreign tourists. In euros and dollars, at least, it ranks as perhaps the best and cheapest long-haul destination in the world. Hence the throngs of foreigners and temporarily returning expats now in the Mother City.
At the weekend, with matters other than the beaches and vineyards on its members’ their minds, the ANC gathers in Cape Town for its annual show of force. The ruling party — in-between bad-tempered jostling with the opposition-controlled city council — is marking its 103rd anniversary, a reminder of both its longevity and its power, which extends everywhere except in the city in which it will be celebrating.
Without boring readers with my recent social calendar, I was quite struck by the fact that, in four encounters last week, I broke bread with members of the British House of Lords holidaying in this city. They were a politically diverse bunch, Labour, Conservative and independent. They were united by the fact that they enjoy the Cape sun at the height of the British winter and have a huge regard for South Africa as a place to visit and as a beacon of both hope and unfulfilled promise.
The last of this quartet I met served in Tony Blair’s cabinet. I asked her about the article in The Economist, in its Christmas double issue, about her former boss, the only Labour politician to have won win three consecutive British general elections. He is therefore objectively the most successful member of his and her political tribe in terms of power, if not accomplishment.
The article in question was headlined “The loneliness of Tony Blair”, perhaps an odd citation for such a successful politician and someone who in his political afterlife commands megamillions of rands to speak (as he will do here at February’s mining indaba). He also appears to do useful work in the Middle East and Africa, and in sport, in what is called “foundational do-gooding”.
The reason for the magazine’s description is that the former PM is “celebrated abroad and reviled at home”. And the reason for the latter can be summed up in one word: Iraq. Or in longer form, for having uncritically signed up his country to the regime-changing agenda of his close friend, if political opposite, US president George W Bush. And doing so on a false prospectus concerning (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction in the horrible hands, allegedly, of Saddam Hussein.
The guest offered a different explanation for the Blair’s lack of appreciation of Blair in his home country: “He came to office so young [he he was 43 when he became prime minister] and was still relatively young when he left 10 years later. Constructing your afterlife at such an age is quite a challenge.”
The opposite impulse seems to attach to local political leaders. For all that the ANC obsesses with making national demographics the be-all and end-all of public office and appointments, the one demographic it never measures is age.
Consider this, and apply it across the political spectrum: South Africa is a remarkably young country with a rather aged leadership.
Overwhelmingly, South Africans are less than 54 years old. About 20.2% of the country is younger than 24 and the biggest age cohort (38.7% of the population) is between 25 and 54. Fewer than one in 10 South Africans is on the wrong side of 55 (this columnist among them, but I gave up political leadership at 50).
Now look at our leaders: President Jacob Zuma is 72, DA leader Helen Zille is 63 and, at the far end of the age spectrum, IFP president-forever Mangosuthu Buthelezi is 86.
The only exception is Economic Freedom Fighters “commander-in-chief” Julius Malema, a comparative baby at only 33. But, as I once observed, his policies are so antique that he is almost old by association.
Not that youth is the entire answer, but sclerotic policies are often the result of ancient ideas, the unwillingness to consider fresh ideas or the inability to open to outside voices.
The old cliche “old habits die hard” has some unfortunate application in a world of ageing leaders.
Zimbabwe is an even more extreme example of this mismatch between the ages of a population and of its leadership. Robert Mugabe quite incredibly holds the reins of power in his 91st year while his young country suffers from decades of his misrule.
South Africa sensibly limits presidents’ terms but does nothing to suggest that there is a retirement age for other political office bearers.
The perfect counterpoint to the obsolete older leader was perhaps provided in Blair’s home country when, in its hour of need and crisis, of the world, 1940, Winston Churchill took over, just in time, at the age of 65. But he did not operate in the era of 24/7 news, social media and the relentless demands of today’s information cycles and culture of openness.
I found an explanation for politicians exceeding their expiry dates in 2006, the year before Blair was shoe-horned out of his position by his impatient rival Gordon Brown. It was written of Blair by the thrusting Conservative journalist and now mayor of London Boris Johnson (today aged 50).
“It is a necessary fact of political biology that we never know when our time is up,” he wrote.
“Long after it is obvious that we are goners we continue to believe it is ‘our duty’ to hang on, with cuticle-wrenching intensity, to the privileges of our post. We kid ourselves that there is a ‘job to be finished’. In reality, we are just terrified of the come-down. There is no day that politicians find easier to postpone than the day of their own resignation.”
Does this warning voice from abroad ring any bells locally?