The artist got his wish in the United States on November 4 when the tsunami of economic woes and popular discontent with the presidency of George Bush swept Barack Obama to power, and drowned any lingering attachments in the US to racial politics.
South Africa’s sclerotic race‐based politics, where every election since democracy could, in various ways, be predetermined on the basis of an ethnic census, is set for a shake‐up with the formalisation of the Congress of the People (COPE) next Tuesday in Bloemfontein.
Might South Africans hope that this most significant breakaway from the ruling ANC since the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress nearly 50 years ago leads to a localised version of “letting the issues be the issue”?
Having enjoyed (the verb endured might be more apt) the title of longest‐serving leader of the official opposition in Parliament since 1994, perhaps I can offer some (unsolicited) advice to the late‐joiners to the opposition patch.
First, in a mechanical sense at least, any worthwhile democrat in South Africa will welcome an addition to the scattered ranks of the country’s opposition forces. One of the reasons why our democracy has not fulfilled its early promise, and the high expectations so many of us had for it, is reflected in the last general election results.
More than 50 points separated the ANC and the principal opposition that I then led. This allowed the governing party to ignore dissenting voices, sideline alternative views, however meritorious, and suck most of the oxygen out of the democratic space which the Constitution, in theory, created for a multiplicity of players. Any reduction in that gap must be welcomed.
Second, it is commendable that COPE has clothed its somewhat threadbare policies in a robust defence of the Constitution — our founding democratic settlement. Recent polls suggest that South Africans retain an overwhelming faith in it, despite their misgivings about current politics and failing institutions.
At this time of deep political uncertainty in South Africa and huge economic upheaval around the world, it is worth recalling the words of US’s investor sage, and its wealthiest man, Warren Buffett. He is fond of remarking in business: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s swimming naked.” The same yardstick should measure political leaders.