Wed Dec 07 20:19:10 SAST 2016

Reduced to spectators in our own democracy

Sunday Times Editorial | 2012-05-13 00:05:40.0

Sunday Times Editorial: HOW should candidates for the presidency be chosen in a democracy? In South Africa they are chosen by political parties at a national conference following months of intense behind-the-scenes lobbying.

In the case of the ANC, this lobbying appears to become ever more laced with intrigue as "enemies" of one candidate or another are "isolated" through murky processes.

The Polokwane contest between President Jacob Zuma and his predecessor, then-president Thabo Mbeki, at least saw an election take place in a public forum.

But the voting had nothing to do with the candidates' positions on matters of policy, their record in government or their ability to meet the needs of their constituencies.

There was no moment when Zuma and Mbeki attempted to persuade those voting of their bona fides.

Instead there was heckling, shouting-down and a display of raw emotion that lingers uncomfortably to this day.

It is time that this process - for the ANC as well as for other parties - is changed to introduce more public participation into choices about high public office.

The US system of primaries, where candidates publicly lobby for the votes of states ahead of their party conferences, including through televised debates, has its flaws.

"Attack advertising" and the disproportionate role that money is allowed to play undermine the ability of some to compete.

But its strengths are undeniable.

By the time voters go to the polls, they have been heavily exposed to the character, policies and leadership abilities of the prospective candidates.

Those unelectable because of their dubious records or their inability to properly articulate policy are eliminated as a matter of course.

The rise of Barack Obama to the highest office provided a lesson in how someone who saw the folly of the Iraq war was able to remove from power a party with considerable resources because the public identified with his message.

The fact that South Africa does not even have a televised debate between those who would rule the country - because the ANC deems this to be beneath it - is not good enough.

The danger that we face is growing disengagement as the elites dominate such decisions and the public are left as the poorly informed spectators of an opaque process.

When they begin to believe that their voice does not count in political processes, they will withdraw, as they have been doing since 1994, creating a dangerous distance between the elites and the people.

Tragically, this is exactly the scenario that suits the hyenas who wish to enrich themselves without public scrutiny.


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