The flip side of the adage that new brooms sweep clean is that old ones just can’t do the job right any more. The same is true of governments; they have a shelf life. There comes a time when an administration simply runs out of ideas and no longer has the will or cohesion to put things right.
In a democratic society, when this happens, it is voted out of office. A new regime takes over and remains in power until it too atrophies and loses the plot, frequently being replaced by the very party — now revitalised and anxious once more to take up the reins after a lengthy spell in opposition — that it originally unseated.
This will not, and indeed under present circumstances cannot, happen in South Africa. After 15 years in office, the ruling party is clearly in crisis, beset by internal power struggles, corruption and declining performance levels. This is normal. Fifteen years is a long time in politics, and the present regime would seem to have burnt itself out. But there is no viable alternative government waiting in the wings.
The Democratic Alliance is fatally compromised by its being seen — unfortunately correctly, despite strenuous efforts on its part to change that reality — as the party representing the interests of the diminishing white minority. The Inkatha Freedom Party, the only other parliamentary grouping representing more than 5% of the electorate, is limited almost entirely to its KwaZulu-Natal base, and even there has lost significant ground since 1994.
What this means is that despite the troubled state of the party, the ANC will once again comfortably win the next national elections. This failure of our political culture to provide a realistic alternative to an increasingly hegemonic ANC may well pose the most serious long-term threat to both democracy and good governance in this country.
Why do employees bother to do their jobs properly? There are a number of possible reasons. One is because they might be motivated and genuinely enjoy their work. Or perhaps they are ambitious, hoping to work themselves up the corporate ladder. But the most compelling reason, if one is realistic, is simply that they are afraid of being fired if they don’t perform.
What applies to ordinary employees should surely apply to politicians as well. As long as there is a threat of losing their well-paid positions, elected officials will obviously perform their duties as well as they can. If they can expect to be reappointed regardless of how badly they do their jobs, then where is the incentive to improve?
There is also a creeping danger of a political party that has been too long in power starting to regard itself as untouchable.
It can hardly be denied that there are today many people in positions of considerable power and influence in this country who hold deeply undemocratic views. Two public statements in particular in recent weeks have thrown the spotlight on this. There was Julius Malema, ANC Youth League president, describing the Democratic Alliance, together with those opposed to Jacob Zuma becoming the country’s next president, as counter-revolutionary elements that needed to be “eliminated”. It more or less coincided with Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s now notorious assertion that he and his organisation were prepared to “lay down their lives and shoot and kill” for Zuma.
Such pronouncements have raised alarm bells countrywide, and for good reason. This is straight-down-the-line Zanu-PF stuff.
Mere media denouncements will not address the problem, and we saw how toothless the Human Rights Commission can be when a wrongdoer chooses to ignore its rulings (as Vavi did). At the end of the day, it is the ordinary voters who must ensure that they get the kind of government they want.
The ANC’s near-impregnable electoral position can largely be attributed to the liberation mystique surrounding it. That is understandable, but also dangerous. Zanu-PF, too, capitalised on liberation-era record to bring in votes, and the Zimbabwe electorate allowed sentiment to overcome its collective good judgment until it was too late.
Everyone knows how Winston Churchill became a 20th-century icon through his courageous, forceful leadership of the British people during World War II. Few remember, however, that even before the war was won, both he and his Conservative Party found themselves turfed out by the British electorate — and by a landslide at that. British voters may have revered their leader, but they also knew that choosing a government cannot be based on sentimentality and blind loyalty. They wanted a new kind of government to lead them in the post-war era, and they got it.
South African politics is currently in turmoil. The ANC can boast of many genuine achievements during its 15 years in office, but it would seem now to have passed its sell-by date. It remains to be seen whether the electorate will choose to do anything about it.