The politics of control

Jamil F. Khan

FILE IMAGE: Sealed ballot boxes at the Langa polling station in Cape Town on May 7 2014.
FILE IMAGE: Sealed ballot boxes at the Langa polling station in Cape Town on May 7 2014.

When considering the abundance of choices represented on our ballot paper, it is often said that we have a healthy democracy.

Our ruling party and its legacy is increasingly more contested and opposition parties have displayed vehement resistance to its dominance and what has manifested as arrogance over the years.

Although robust debate and contestation of power is healthy in any democratic society, we have seen something shift over the past 25 years of ANC rule. Not only do opposition political parties make it a point of keeping the ANC in line, they tend to find purpose in not critiquing the ruling party but disgracing it. 

Opposition in SA has become a game of spite and petty bickering, rather than the offering of alternative solutions.  In this way the ANC, ironically, creates and controls opposition politics.

A live television debate between youth leaders of the ANC, DA and EFF was recently broadcast. The host gave each representative the opportunity to put forward their solutions for the issues they have identified as urgent.

No sooner had the debate started than the EFF began arguing its solutions on the basis of the failures of the ANC and DA. Time ran out and viewers were left with little to ponder on besides the venom political parties spit at each other.

The ANC in all its failings remains firmly in control of political debate because opposition arguments are based almost solely on characterising and defining the ANC. It remains the source and the outcome of politics, which may explain some of its arrogance towards critique.

It has been said many times that the EFF is a product of the ANC and this idea has been framed in different ways. For some, the statement points to its leader as the physical product of ANC politics and political education.

For others it means that the reason for the party’s existence is a direct response to the ANC as an ailing political party. Whatever the interpretation, it is clear to see how the ANC, although considered the nemesis of opposition, has a firm hand in the construction of political opposition.

In the same way that the DA through its evolution and various rebranding exercises is guided by the need for the ANC’s demise rather than its proposed vision for South Africa. Another manifestation of this is the VF+ and its “Slaan Terug” campaign. The premise is that the ANC and all those representing it have dealt them a blow and that they should retaliate. Again, an entire purpose constructed from the need to see the ANC destroyed.

This circular process of political opposition seems to have become normalised in a democracy where spite and bickering has been mistaken for debate.

It seems rational for opposition politics to keep its foot on the neck of power, but a big part of our voter dilemma is the absence of trustworthy alternatives. It even seems disingenuous to have the conversation because we have accepted that political parties are politics, but how many alternatives have we explored?

The political landscape has remained in the hands of party politics which often occupies space that is desperately needed for dialogue about systemic  disadvantage and civil fragmentation for example.

Political parties are in service to ego and power because, no matter how grand their displays of devotion to progress, the egos driving investment in victory and defeat will always overshadow the lives of the people they claim to serve. Political parties, with all their manifestos and values, remain about the gratification of the people who lead them.

There will be a change in leadership sooner or later, and the ANC will no longer ride its high horse of political dominance, but its impact and influence will reach far beyond its fall. History has shaped political leadership in very toxic ways in this country through the constant struggle against control.

This dispensation is a response to apartheid and the next dispensation will be a response to this one and so the cycle will continue. We have attached our aspirations to leaders and their organisations. 

Opposition parties must move beyond petty “take-down” politics and create solutions independent of the ruling party’s failures. Until then, the ANC will control politics beyond the confines of its own policies and aspirations, making every opposition party an extension of itself.

- Khan is a PhD Critical Diversity Studies candidate.

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