The Politics of Hope

Wednesday, 3 December, 2008 - 09:09

The time has come for South African politicians to practice the politics of joy and hope. This requires hard work, as lasting solutions for issues such as housing, service delivery, unemployment and crime can only be found when they apply their minds and not their hearts.

As I was handing the car guard R3,75 I casually asked him what he thought of the changes in South African politics. His answer was unexpectedly candid:

“Manee, die politicians is ammal mal. Hille baklei wragtag soe ori stoel innie palimint, wat hille ni eens ka saam vattie as hille vrekkie. Ek vi hille stem... ek issie mallie. Dey bring me no joy and no hope!” (Mister, the politicians are all mad. Mind you, they fight over a chair in parliament which they can’t even take with them when they die. I vote for them? I’m not mad).

“Ja… maar dink jy nie dit is belangrik om te gaan stem nie?” (‘Yes... but don’t you think it is important, after all, to go and vote?’) “No komment!” he shouted while he hurriedly made his way to the next motorist parking his car. I got into my car, quite bewildered, and found myself still pondering about his comments while winding my way through the traffic.

Is it a general view that those whom we have entrusted with the politics of our country bring us neither joy nor hope? Or is it just the car guard’s opinion? Browsing through the newspapers, however, it appears that the general public has lost faith in our politicians. Some communities are threatening to boycott the election; others have resorted to protest action, while there are those who show no interest at all.

With the release of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent elections in 1994, the picture was quite different. There was joy and hope. We lived it - the exuberance, the goodwill and the expectation. We were there in the midst of it all with voters who, together with other hopefuls, waited patiently in endless queues for the opportunity to, in most cases, make our first cross ever. But now the politics of joy and hope appears to have given way for grief and despair.

Erstwhile blood brothers have become sworn enemies threatening, accusing and even assaulting one another. The promise of a better life for all has vanished like mist before the sun and has been replaced by an intense fight for political survival.

In her book, ‘The Politics of Hope: Reviving the Dream of Democracy’, Donna Zajonc calls on civil society not to accept the situation lying down and not to abandon hope. She argues that an open and free society always holds the potential for spontaneous mobilisation to counter the tide of political uncertainty and despair. It not only serves to keep political marginalisation and even anarchy at bay, but also forces the present hegemony to make social, economic and political adjustments, even if it is sometimes merely empty promises. The various tunes that our politicians are playing before different audiences are signs of distress over declining support bases and an inability to create lasting solutions for the complex social challenges of the day. Whether they will succeed in winning the trust of their audiences with these turn-coat tactics remains to be seen.

What South African politicians need to realise is that the dawn of the third millennium with its technological advances have drastically changed the world. Things will never be the same again. Information technology enables us to access literally any bit of information under the sun, create information ourselves, manipulate it and share it with others. For those who do not have access to the Internet, there are television, radio and newspapers. It is indeed an exciting but dangerous era, because those who create information have both a motive and a target. The motive: to dictate specific political outcomes. And the target: often those who, for whatever reason, strive to gain political power.

For these ambitious ones the third millennium holds huge surprises; because it is an era which has no regard for political hot-headedness and heroism. The playing fields of the internet junkies do not only make short work of fiery rhetoric, but also do not tolerate any political grandeur. This is an ego-driven milieu where the creator of information regards him or herself as important and takes pleasure in expressing opposing viewpoints that will hopefully illicit some response.

The recent election of Barack Obama as new president of the USA can mainly be attributed to the Internet. According to Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the not-profit think-tank NDN, Obama used the Internet very effectively to create a new support base by giving ordinary Americans hope as he focused on pertinent issues and undertook to bring about change. In the process he not only created new coalitions but also radically transformed the traditional way of conducting elections. With the help of the co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, the website was launched, creating an environment for millions of Americans to participate in the political process. In this way, vast numbers of volunteers were mobilised to motivate their fellow countrymen to vote or become involved in some way or another. Whether this is possible in South Africa where only seven percent of the population has access to the Internet should not be the point – rather we should look at the reasons why Americans turned their backs on politicians who gave them no joy and hope.

Zajonc’s book emphasises exactly that which Barack Obama has been practicing in the past months: the politics of hope, trust and inspiration. According to her, this entails collaboration with a view to find lasting solutions for the many social issues causing grief and despair. The formation of new alliances across past political divides, a shared political vision, the effective use of the latest communication technology and other media, the creation of a participatory political culture and demands for 110 percent political accountability – this is where the solutions lie.

The time has come for South African politicians to change their mindset away from a baklei-ori-stoel-innie-palimint (fighting-over-a-chair-in-parliament) approach towards practicing the politics of joy and hope. However, this requires hard work, as lasting solutions for issues such as housing, education, health, service delivery, unemployment, crime and conservation of the environment can only be found when they apply their minds and not their hearts.

- Christo van der Rheede is the Executive Officer of the Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans

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