ANC can afford a few votes

01 September 2011 - 02:46 By Brendan Boyle

One can forecast the value of the rand, the price of a share or the weather if one dares, but I have learned over many years that predicting political events is a mug's game.

So I am breaking one of my own hard-learned rules when I predict that Derek Hanekom's ANC disciplinary committee will fudge the question before it and give Julius Malema a slap on the wrist.

My money is on suspension for something like three to six months, which would allow ANC president Jacob Zuma to claim decisiveness and still leave Malema a clear field in the run-up to next year's policy and elective conferences in May and December.

It's the sort of thing politicians call a win-win solution, but which actually is a lose-lose outcome.

South Africans have yet to learn that most contests are best won by narrow margins.

The Nats always wanted to blow all opposition out of the water in the sham elections they staged over nearly 50 years and the ANC brought a similar culture back from exile.

The ANC earned its power and deserves a sound majority, but tends to read anything less than a two-thirds victory in national elections as a defeat and looks for answers beyond the diversity of opinion that actually enriches society.

The result is that we lose as a nation the benefits of arguing the middle ground on all the issues that confront us.

Whether we are talking about abortion, labour and economic policy or fracking in the Karoo, our default is towards binary yes-no arguments in which everyone must choose one side and everything it stands for.

That, I think, is why the ANC finds it so difficult to take the hard decisions that sometimes are demanded of it - as in the case of Malema, the leader of its youth league.

The party is so committed to absolute victories that it is afraid to stake any of its majority on an action that some might not like. It would prefer to fudge the hard issues and try to keep everyone happy with a result that no one really likes.

This approach extends across the alliance and goes some way to explain the failures in education and health care. From Luthuli House through the unions to the wards and classrooms, the reluctance to lose votes by holding non-performers to account breeds a culture of indolence and self-interest.

This pursuit of votes at any price may deliver huge majorities, but they come at the cost of the loss of respect that we are seeing now in the response to the charges against Malema and the ANC's inability to control the crowds that turned up at the door of Luthuli House on Tuesday.

No one respects an authority that cannot say no.

In the current case, there is no win-win result. If Malema walks away with a slap on the wrist then everyone - except the coterie who share in his plunder of the Limpopo economy - loses.

Zuma loses, too, of course, but he is history already. We need to look beyond him for leadership that could put South Africa back on the high road to peace, success and prosperity for all.

Any sentence of suspension that ends before the 2014 election would be a victory for Malema.

Those who rely on him to share the loot would know that he will use the time to prepare for a powerful return as the ANC's kingmaker.

Yes, taking Malema down would alienate a large group for a while, but the ANC would gain stature in the long run and with it the ability to more effectively influence the future.

Zuma's treatment by the youth, both organised and chaotic, has underlined the risk of riding to power on the bought vote of a constituency you do not truly represent. Thabo Mbeki did it and paid the price. Now they are burning T-shirts bearing Zuma's image as they did Mbeki shirts in the run-up to the Polokwane conference in 2007.

Politics does require candidates to woo blocs, but there must be some fundamental coincidence of interests and not just a stack of false promises.

If I am wrong in my prediction and the ANC really does use this opportunity to take Malema down, we will have an opportunity to return from the politics of overwhelming power to the politics of negotiation.

The right answer to most questions lies between the poles of energetic argument. The best outcome of most votes is a workable majority that could be lost if its owners stray too far from the pledges that delivered victory.

The ANC and its individual leaders can afford to lose a few votes as a consequence of doing the right thing. They might even find that going with principle rather than expedience builds a solid foundation from which to take the country forward.

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