When party politics and patriotism don't align, the country comes second

Party politics aside, what is best for us as citizens?

13 December 2017 - 05:00
The ANC's elective conference of 1997, when Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as party president, took place at a time when the party was very different to what it is today. Picture: TBG Archives
The ANC's elective conference of 1997, when Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as party president, took place at a time when the party was very different to what it is today. Picture: TBG Archives

This time a decade ago, when the ANC was defenestrating its then all-powerful president Thabo Mbeki, I was an ocean away in the ice and snow which encased Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Being gifted with a five-month fellowship at the university's John F Kennedy School of Government had many advantages and memories which linger to this day.

But on the Woody Allen principle that "most of life is about showing up", the greatest gift of residence there was that every week one of the good and the great from US and world politics would address students and faculty at a forum, literally 10m from my office. You were spoilt for choice in the weekly line-up - from Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, to Nobel prize winner and awesome orator Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh.

But strangely enough the most impressive speaker of the lot was the diminutive (he's under 1.5m tall) Robert Reich who served as president Bill Clinton's labour secretary and is today an acclaimed academic and public commentator.

In his address over 10 years ago he spoke with deep feeling about what he termed "the conflict in our brain between what we want as a citizen and what we like as a consumer".

He then recounted how decades before when he was at Harvard there had been dozens of independent book shops, but on the night of his address this number had been reduced to one. The mighty Harvard Co-op, an offshoot of mega-retailer Barnes & Noble, had driven the rest out of business and e-commerce was starting to bite into the book-buyer market. Doubtless today the solitary book shop has disappeared and Amazon has imperilled even mighty Barnes & Noble.

The dilemma is this, as Reich explained: As consumers, buying cheaper books from a huge inventory and never having to leave your dorm room to purchase them is a huge win for both your pocket and your convenience. But, as citizens, a number of specialised book stores - often with quirky owners and opinionated staff - is a virtue. It enriches what is termed the "civic space".

Reich's description of this conflict in our brains is much on my mind this week, and should also, dear reader, be on yours - for two unrelated events of some consequence to our country.

Friday will be the last appearance of The Times in print form. The death or demise of print journalism is a huge civic loss.

Of small loss to our household will be my early morning walks accompanied by my eager dachshund to the front gate to collect and then pore over its contents with my first mug of coffee for the day. I can then mark up the articles which annoy and enthral and use them as fodder for a future column.

Now it will only be available online - a big win for the ease of convenience, as in winter you don't have to leave the bedroom. With all the additions, which you can navigate with a gridful of electrons not confined by the limitations of newsprint, there are a lot of new possibilities. But still one feels the looming loss.

Then on Saturday at Nasrec, Soweto, the ANC begins its long dark night of the soul - or a series of them - as it decides whether to be rid of the Zumas or to stick with the rotting politics which has defined the past decade in South Africa.

Now here is a dilemma for all supporters of the opposition parties who have no say in the ANC decision but have a mighty interest in the outcome of who will lead the ruling party.

If you are an opposition partisan you pray for a victory for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The calculation here is very simple. eNCA has commissioned polling company Markdata to survey the nation on the topic.

The results are very stark. Among self-declared ANC supporters, Cyril Ramaphosa leads NDZ by a whopping 64% to 14%. All people polled also stated by a margin of 54% to 21.3% that if for some reason the ANC chose NDZ then "the ANC would lose more votes".

If you read Monday's edition of The Star you would have seen the headline "NDZ lashes whites" - doubtless a last-gasp effort by her unpopular campaign to boost its chances. But she could have saved herself the bother. The same poll indicates that among black South Africans fewer than 15% of the sample believe that race relations today are either "a bit worse" or "much worse".

Over 58% believe race relations are either "much better" or "a bit better" and 21.5% believe (despite the white monopoly capital campaign et al) they have stayed the same.

Simply put, for any opposition supporter, NDZ is far and away the best bet for the ANC to possibly lose the next election.

But wait a minute. Every opposition voter is by definition also a citizen of South Africa. And that's the conflict in every such supporter's brain: what you want for your party and what you desire as a citizen.

But there really should be no conflict at all on the choice here. As another eminent speaker at Harvard, and former Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, put it in just two words: "Country first."

Amen to that and happy holidays.

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