Language of politics given new meaning in SA
MANY of the problems of South African politics lie with ourselves — or at least, with the way we are encouraged to think about politics.
The way we think about SA begins with an around-the-clock news cycle in which the facts of politics are constantly overlaid with punditry. Moreover, most of the views that are dished up as "expert" opinions are delivered in numbers. So, statistics are used, not as a means to understand the social world, but as a way to present a world stripped of history and politics.
A classic example of this was the recent presentation of the matric results by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. With endless statistics, she avoided the real politics of schooling in SA and so avoided saying anything about her department’s failures.
How does this happen? Simply put, we are encouraged to see all politics as instantaneous. In this way, it becomes a kind of sports event: players on a field, supporters in the stand and most people watching the game on TV. Opinion on what’s going on is informed mostly by the commentators and, during breaks in play, by expert panels, which explain what is going on in technical terms.
This is the politics of sharp elbows, of scoring points, which inevitably leads to crude sloganeering. But it is important because the national mood that it determines informs the view of outsiders on what is going on and on what will happen. These days, the latter is codified by the "rating agencies", whose business is not really to educate — or even inform — the public, but to influence their own ratings on the great stock exchanges of the world, where they are listed companies.
Faced with all of this, it is easy to understand how the public comes to politics and the judgments needed to underpin it without any serious historical and comparative understanding.
For this reason alone, I am looking forward to the release in SA of the movie, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring (as the US’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln) Daniel Day-Lewis. The film captures Lincoln’s struggle with the passage of the amendment to the constitution that would abolish slavery. It is the story of the political intrigue Lincoln faced to free slaves against the backdrop of the ending of the civil war.
The deep issue I hope the film will illustrate is that politics should be seen for what it is: a continuous social process that needs to be judged over the long term. Lincoln’s position in US history illustrates this very well: he became president about 90 years after the US declaration of independence (1775), which freed the North American colonies from the British. For those 90 years, the US faced the difficult task of defining the aspect that most mattered to its identity — how much power Washington enjoyed over each individual state. The civil war itself was fought over this very issue: were individual states able to continue with slavery or were they bound by the determination of the central government to end the practice throughout the US?
While the abolitionists triumphed, the core social issue of race would only unravel slowly. So, it took almost another 100 years of continued discrimination against black people before Rosa Parks defied an order to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 — the event which sparked the civil rights movement. This finally brought the issue of racial discrimination fully into the national consciousness, promoting great changes in the US private and public eye.
This would come to influence SA’s own struggle to end apartheid. And it would take a further 40 years from 1968 — the end of the civil rights movement — until 2008 for Americans to elect a black president, Barack Obama.
What is the lesson? All social relationships are difficult to negotiate. It takes a long time for a country to develop the kind of "soft elbows" that make a democracy function. Of course, politics lives in the present, but it can be judged only over the long term. If this is one lesson, another is to be learnt from the father of sociology, Max Weber, who famously called politics the "slow boring of hard boards".
This will be an important year for SA, because it is the eve of the 20th anniversary of our democracy. The decisions we take will set the tone for the serious conversation we will need to have on our progress as a country, a people and a democracy, in 2014.
• Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg and a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.
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