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The party political system and its personality cult has run its course

FILE IMAGE; Opposition political parties' leaders marching against President Jacob Zuma.
FILE IMAGE; Opposition political parties' leaders marching against President Jacob Zuma.
Image: Genevieve Quintal

Since before the South African nation came into being in its entirety in 1994, leadership has always comprised a majority group of men. Within this history, particularly, political formations have served to demarcate and control resources in ways that more often than not fostered inequality, to the detriment of the majority.

Twenty-five years later we lament a lack of progress.

Some say that the government of the day has not had enough time to effect any meaningful change, given that the former oppressive regimes lasted much longer. Others say there is simply no excuse and that a lack of political will, cronyism and corruption has delayed progress. Whatever the stance, I have not come across much critique of the party political system and its common sense status in the South African social imaginary.

Public governance politics has revolved around parties and the personalities that animate them since I can remember. Someone leaves the ANC, then joins the DA, then starts their own party, then re-joins the ANC, then leaves politics, then comes back.

Politicians have built celebrity profiles and gained pet names for their shenanigans, all the while being protected by the family-like party structures.

Many have said that we don’t elect our leaders because we vote for parties and not people. Yes, branch politics plays a role in giving individuals a voice within parties, but the expectation that every citizen must engage on that level to have an influence is unrealistic.

Why are we so attached to the idea that a political party must lead us?

In February, a 37-year-old anti-establishment candidate, Nayib Bukele, was elected the president of El-Salvador. The populist election broke the two-party system that had prevailed since the 1980s. Like South Africa, political parties there have been heavily laden with a history of association to the  country’s civil war.

Through a campaign built solely on social media and a casual style relatable to millennials, Bukele took the country beyond the post-war period that came to be marred by corruption and poor service delivery.

It sounds all too familiar.

We have come to understand populism as a dirty word for some reason, but when interrogating what it means that framing makes sense. Populism is a political approach which aims to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their interests are ignored by established elite groups. Power never does handle a challenge well and in South Africa we find ourselves pandering to this power fortified by the structures of political parties and their manipulative claims to historical legitimacy.

There have been attempts to challenge the power of the elite establishment, but the response is always in the form the thing we already have – more political parties.

I would risk myself and say that there is something within the party political structure that inevitable leads it to the fate of every one before it. There is something enabling about the padded comfort of bureaucratic comradeship and historical celebrity that appeals to the corruptible nature of human beings.

There might be many reasons why the El-Salvador solution cannot be applied here. Maybe the histories are too different, maybe the sizes of the countries are too different, or maybe we are just not made of the same stuff. It all of that is true, it still does not explain our hesitance to entertain new possibilities. We have only contested our political reality within the same structures we lament.

Maybe the answer is simply not political parties, who have also notoriously exhausted self-proclaimed agents of change with the manipulation of process and procedure for malicious ends. Changing the system from the inside has paid off for very few, and maybe the issue is the system.

South African youth are much better placed to take the country’s fate into their own hands today than they were historically, whether highly educated or simply politically conscious. There is such an abundance of skills and clarity of thought among the youth that can only bode well for our political future, but we cannot achieve anything within the structures we currently have. In fact, they have actively inhibited the progress we seek.

There remains very little that is redeemable about what South African democratic leadership has become, we might as well risk new possibilities.

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