A 10-point Guide to Progressive Politics for South African Youth
Dear fellow Youth,
I believe we have a special role to play in our society. We are an unusually young nation, and as such, the quality of our contribution to our nation’s public discourse- positive or negative- has the potential to spur progress and innovation in the best case, entrench stagnation and decay in the worst case.
We can agree or disagree on ideas, strategies and tactics, but at some point we have to share some basic principles, and agree on some rules. For instance, with the World Cup upon us, allow me a football analogy? In football we can argue about who are the best players and teams, who plays most beautifully, the relative merits of 4-4-2 vs 4-5-1 and many things else besides, but we must agree on things like what parts of the body can touch the ball, what constitutes a goal, off-side, a foul, and basic sportsmanship.
Thus I have taken a stab at a 10-point guide, something of a handbook to progressive politics for South African youth. I hope African youth everywhere will find it useful as a starting point for a discourse on how to build a political culture which, irrespective of the specifics of our various affiliations, philosophies and perspectives, provides a basis to improve the quality and effectiveness of our politics.
1. Language Matters: Leaders are servants, not rulers.
Ruling party? Who exactly is to be ruled? What happened to “the people shall govern”?
Kings are rulers, dictators are rulers. Elected representatives and officials in the state apparatus in a democratic state are public servants, not rulers. In fact, referring to political work as public service is a good starting point for building a true public service ethos rooted in transparency, accountability, selflessness and service. One of the more unfortunate aspects of our politics has been the ossification of a ruling elite characterized by opaqueness, unaccountability, personal accumulation and the privileging of connections and status over competence and merit. If we want to change this, rethinking how we refer to those elected and appointed to serve the public is as good a place as any to start.
2. ‘African solutions’ must be actual solutions
I am all for African solutions, just not at the expense of the solution part of the equation. It would be nice if we can find an indigenous answer to every given African problem. However, it is most important that we solve the problem. If an idea with merit is available abroad, by all means let’s evaluate it’s suitability carefully, adapt it if necessary, but most importantly, solve the problem. Solutions must be judged primarily on their effectiveness, not their origin.
The desire for African solutions to African problems is often used as a smokescreen to defend ‘solutions’ that work only for elites. Taking advantage of our resentment of centuries of impositions- borders, languages, political structures- proponents of ‘African solutions’ are often disingenuously appealing to emotion to gain support for bad ideas.
The problem with the ‘African solutions’ argument, is that it overstates the importance of national origin, and understates the importance of agency (taking responsibility for solving your problems, not nitpicking over how you solve them), adaptation (a solution that works thanks to its careful and considered adaptation to local conditions is an African solution in my book), and effectiveness (if it doesn’t work it’s not a solution).
3. Apartheid is no longer an excuse
The great African-American intellectual John Henrik Clarke once said “If you start your history with slavery, anything since then looks like progress.” He was imploring African-Americans to measure their progress against their own informed idea of their greatest potential, not against the lowest point in their history.
I think that thinking is applicable for South Africa: If we start our history with Apartheid, anything since then looks like progress.
From henceforth, be deeply suspicious of any political actor or entity who attempts to explain poor performance in a particular area by talking about ‘What we inherited…’
We all have our work judged by an evaluation of what we have delivered, based on what we started with, what we promised, and the means we had at our disposal. If there are extraordinary (current-extraordinary, not pre-16 years ago extraordinary) factors which arose in the time after we have undertaken to do a given task, that can be taken into consideration. However, it then must be assessed whether we have delivered on that task.
Did you deliver based on what could have been reasonably expected of you or not?
4. Against the person (play the ball, not the man)
Sellout, coconut, reactionary, racist, counterrevolutionary. All of these terms (and others) have been used in our public discourse in recent years to attack those whose opinions we disagree with. They all have one thing in common, they are Ad Hominem attacks, meaning they are attacks on a person intended to reject said person’s argument without addressing its merits.
Ad Hominem, from the Latin, means ‘against the person’. I argue that peaches are good, you argue that I am bad, therefore peaches are presumed to be bad (or at the very least not good).
This form of invalid argument is often used, unfortunately to great effect, to stifle or avoid meaningful debate in South Africa.
5. Country before party
This is a difficult one. Politics has an emotional dimension, even more so in a society like our own, where because of our history, political allegiances and perspectives are intertwined with our identity and perception in deep and enduring ways.
But let’s try and approach this objectively.
I understand political parties as vehicles for formal participation in public affairs. Presumably they are organizations of members united around a common vision and program that its membership thinks will best serve the nation’s progress. These organizations offer members from their ranks to lead the nation in government.
Is government a privileged opportunity to serve or a prize to be captured? It is the nation which is of paramount importance, right?
If so then we must see ourselves as South Africans first, above all. If we are first members of this party, or that party, then it is not nation building we are interested in, it is party building. If we are not citizens before we are card carrying party members or ‘cadres’, then we are subordinating the nation to the party.
We like to think of ourselves as proud South Africans, but so many events have transpired in our young democracy, which are inexplicable unless one understands that political actors have made important decisions which placed party, factional, and personal interests above national interests.
We must decide if it is acceptable to make decisions that are bad for the country, but good for parties, factions, and persons within it.
6. Merit matters
For obvious reasons, our young democracy has had to concern itself with historical redress, and addressing racial disparities. This is understandable.
What is not understandable is the absence of merit from our post-1994 lexicon.
Yes we need transformation. But merit also needs to be front and center in every decision we make about the selection and promotion of individuals in our society. Jobs, positions and offices aren’t just vehicles for the earning of money (and the transformation of individuals from previously disadvantaged to advantaged.)They are responsibilities; they are platforms for the harnessing of human potential and talent.
Barack Obama’s father, a Harvard graduate, died in obscurity, frustrated by the lack of opportunities in his native Kenya after falling afoul of Jomo Kenyatta.
His son Barack Obama became president of the United States.
If only these pitfalls were historical, belonging only to other African countries. How many young, talented individuals are un/underemployed, or enriching other countries by working abroad, or working in the private sector because they can’t get a foot in the public sector door for reasons unrelated to merit?
Do we have a skills shortage or do we have a merit-based opportunity shortage?
How much potential will we continue to lose, overlooked because of political, racial, or ethnic considerations?
7. Too much ideology is a bad thing
Deng Xiaoping, the Communist Chinese leader who opened up China to the global market, once said “I don’t care what color the cat is, as long as it catches mice.”
What is the best possible way for us to encourage business to create jobs while protecting workers? What is the best way for us to create new wealth, rather than just redistribute existing wealth? What is the best way for us to provide government services to the poor without overburdening our small tax base? How can we provide quality health care to all affordably?
These are only a few of the many difficult questions we must answer as a society in order to achieve progress. None will be solved by lectures on Adam Smith or Karl Marx. We need flexible, pragmatic visions and policy solutions which take into account the inconvenient dynamics of the real world, like limited implementation capacity, finite resources, and irrational behavior.
8. Erudition is a virtue: Education matters
Do you want to be treated by a mediocre doctor? Do you want to buy a house constructed by a mediocre builder? Do you want to fly across stormy seas on a plane flown by a mediocre pilot?
No? Then why are we prepared to accept intellectual laziness and mediocrity from our political leaders?
Public service may or may not be as noble a profession as medicine, but it is just as important. Politics involves making decisions that affect the quality of life and death of millions of citizens. Safe streets, clean water, effective hospitals, energy that won’t kill our planet; politics involves making decisions about the management and use of the nation’s resources, scarce resources earned through our hard work, time, and sacrifice.
What should qualify one to make these decisions? Not all academics are intellectuals, and not all intellectuals are academics. There are many paths to becoming a leader, but I for one would like to know that anyone who presumes to make these decisions on my behalf has spent some sustained period of time learning about the world: how it came to be the way it is, and thinking deeply about how to improve it (as well as how others have tried). No more, no less.
9. We need builders, not radicals
I once watched a documentary which explored how China feeds 20% of the world’s population on 7% of the world’s arable land. It explored how China’s agriculture has developed over thousands of years to feed so many people. One scene showed a large irrigation project built almost a thousand years earlier, which was still in operation, the long dead engineer’s name still remembered. I was amazed that this agricultural community continued to thrive on something designed a millennium ago. Imagine the care and expertise which must have went into designing and maintaining something to last for so long!
Builders think long term.
We have a ways to go until we have the society we all want: a safe and peaceful society, free of discrimination, with widely shared prosperity, equality of opportunity, and low levels of inequality.
How do we get there? Who knows. That we will figure out together. What I do know is that there will be no shortcuts. It will take hard work, and hard decisions.
What I do know is that we will get there with shovels, not machine guns. We will get there with entrepreneurs, not tenderpreneurs. We will get there with thinkers, not opportunists. We will get there brainstorming and debating, not toeing the party line. We will get there with restraint, not provocation. We will get there with vision and ideas, not taunts and threats.
We will get there with engineers, scientists, farmers, and all manner of citizens committed to creating something, improving something, solving something.
10. Deliverables, Deliverables, Deliverables.
During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, while African-Americans were marveling at his preaching-cadenced oratory, and pondering the symbolism of a first black president, white constituencies and backers were extracting promises in exchanging for their support. A year into his presidency, dissatisfied at the perceived absence of African-American concerns (black unemployment, post-Katrina New Orleans etc.) on Obama’s agenda- big surprise- one year into his presidency (two years late) African-American leaders are starting a debate on how to critically engage the Obama White House and advocate for the interests of African-Americans.
While millions of the poor, the marginalized, the socialist-leaning, the otherwise-dissatisfied-with-the-Mbeki-era sang, danced, protested, threatened, and marched Jacob Zuma to the Presidency, amid expectations of a socialist shift in ANC government social and economic policy, Zuma was assuring bankers and investors in SA and abroad that there would be business as usual. Approaching the end of his first year, COSATU, exasperated with what they perceive as the Zuma administration’s excessively conservative economic policy- big surprise- is flexing its muscles in irritation (again, late) at its unfulfilled expectations.
One of the main reasons black people are taken advantage of politically, and find our needs unmet, is we support particular personalities and parties wholeheartedly, and uncritically [for reasons like ethnicity, perceived authenticity, style and charisma, almost entirely unrelated to one’s ability to deliver, but that’s an essay on its own.] With our support in the bag, these political actors then do what they want to do, and what they have to do to maintain support of those other constituencies- and powerful interests- who make clear their support is conditioned upon deliverables.
If your support for a political actor is not based on clear, concrete deliverables which advance your interests, you are wasting your time, your voice and your vote.