Playing Politics

July 24, 2008

Democracy, Featured

Ebrahim Fakir

- Last week in Business Day Rhoda Kadalie launched a wild ad hominem attack on several people, including myself …

In relation to what Rhoda purports, me [and others] to have said, She says: “When Zille said she would be prepared to join a realignment of political forces for the good of SA , Ebrahim Fakir and Steven Friedman immediately repudiated the idea, instead of welcoming such an initiative.”

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. What Rhoda does, is disingenuously twist language to paint a particular reality, one which is in fact, unreal. What I said [Steven can speak for himself], was in essence far from repudiating the idea, and more a questioning of easy assumptions, something we are expressly meant to do. The merits of demerits of what we write and say are open to scrutiny and debate, but I am sure you agree, that the distortion of what we write and say to send a particular political message, without engaging in the substance of it, is distasteful.

In any event, I have a thicker skin than that, and even though it takes too much time and energy to fix what she distorts, I might yet write a response when I find the time.

Far from the reflexive dismissal Rhoda assumes and [wrongly] attributes regarding “a realignment of political forces” and my repudiation of it – it is something I might actually welcome under specific conditions” i.e: the requisite amounts of credibility and legitimacy, the core minimum of a political and policy programme, some ideological thrust. After all, what is a political force without an ideology? This is what I originally questioned, as I did a series of other things, and that is what Rhoda purports to be “repudiation” of the idea. Under such conditions, in which her logic is a simple and twisted binary, what kind of discourse on citizenship can anyone have? And then she passes herself off as a “human rights activist”

In any case, one final thought – surely it is inconsequential, even immaterial, if I, or others accept, reject, repudiate or welcome any such idea. The electorate and the society are there to pronounce on it. So why should Rhoda make a big deal about it, anyway. What does it matter? It is in that sense then, that it becomes clear that Rhoda’s rantings are ad-hominem – without any basis in fact and, and which failed to grapple with the content and substance of what was said and written. In short, she seemingly wants to play politics – and turn into politicians – those who are expressly not so! We may be political, but we are certainly not politicians.

I think her warning that “Feinstein and his ilk will wake up, after the party, and, I fear, with a hangover that will be incurable” may be most appropriate in her own case. A hangover signals a move to sobriety, she simply seems to be in a state or permanent inebriation.

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  1. Jean Racine Says:

    After reading Kadalie’s piece I was struck, yet again, by the froth she brings to her column, and the twisted logic(?) she employs to marshal her arguments. And something else that’s always puzzled me: surely human rights activists are acknowledged as such by those for whom they agitate? What credence should one lay on those who beat their chests and proclaim themselves “human rights activists”?


  2. Wessel van Rensburg (aka Mhambi) Says:

    ‘After all, what is a political force without an ideology?’

    So Mr Fakir, what ideology will lift you out of your inertia? I think Kadalie should add next to her name ‘Human rights activist with allot of balls’.


  3. Thomas Alberts Says:

    Froth indeed! I don’t think Kadalie’s observations are entirely without merit (for example, the irony that so many of Mbeki’s most virulent critics were silent when Mbeki was implementing the policies they now so virulently oppose). But on the more substantial issues, she is off the mark, appealing as her analyses may be at first blush – the point that old lefties would rather abstain than break the ANC’s 2/3 majority. More pointedly, “It is this majority that has destroyed the country and Parliament through the proportional representative electoral system and its consequent incapacity to hold the executive accountable.”

    This line is the most important of her piece because it constellates (and then some!) several of the most important features of our young democracy: electoral systems, balance of powers between branches of government, and the fact of ANC electoral majority. Kadalie’s argument is that the magnitude of this majority is the spanner in the works that prevents the democratic system from functioning properly, hence the inability of the legislative branch to check the power of the executive. This being her diagnosis, her solution is to break the ANC’s majority: “the future of SA depends on the ANC splitting” – hence the frothing invective she directs at Andrew Feinstein “and his ilk” who, Kadalie contends, believe that “resistance and opposition can only come from within the ANC and the left”, a position she rejects with predictable contempt. Fair enough, kind of …

    When her analysis is in full stride like this, it carries you along. And so one is likely to miss the slide. She’s looking at the right thing, but draws the wrong conclusion, and the slide is there in plain sight.
    Look at that sentence again:

    “It is this majority that has destroyed the country and Parliament through the proportional representative electoral system and its consequent incapacity to hold the executive accountable.”

    Is it the ANC’s majority that she is saying has destroyed (note the past tense?!) SA and Parliament, or the proportional representative system that doesn’t hold executive power accountable? This is a crucial difference. The ANC’s majority is a easy target and one likely to earn her kudos with liberals, but since the electoral outcomes are a result of electoral systems, it seems to me that a more substantive debate could be had about the methods we use to elect our representatives as well as systems we institute to regulate how they represent us.

    This is notoriously difficult territory as there are literally hundreds of different kinds of electoral systems, each with their advantages and disadvantages. But if our debates about democracy are to be principled rather than merely pandering to politicians (Ebrahim, i think this is one of your points), then that’s where i think this debate must go.

    So in a superficial way Kadalie is right when she says “parliament and the government are the public servants of the people.” But her sniping that in SA most intellectuals don’t know that is perhaps a bit misplaced.


  4. Wessel van Rensburg (aka Mhambi) Says:

    Is’nt making distinctions between citizens and politicians a luxury best reserved for wealthly and stable democracies? Thomas, perhaps I’m a bit slow, but what is the crux of what your saying?


  5. Thomas Alberts Says:

    My friends advise me that if I were more economical with words, I’d actually end up saying more. Let me try again …

    Rhoda’s argument is appealing because she says a lot of things many people want to hear and that basicaly boils down to fighting talk. She’s not pulling any punches and she criticizes the mainstream of intellectuals and politicians for repeatedly having done so (in her view). This is fine and well, but my point is that while the fighting talk might be appealing and even beneficial if it shakes some armchair democrats out of complacency, her analysis is still weak. An argument that says the ANC’s vast majority is a problem had better have a good answer to the predictable counterargument that says the ANC’s majority is the will of the people, finish and klaar. A better analysis would examine some of the structural features of our democratic systems e.g. electoral systems, rather than staying only with the facts those systems bring into existence, e.g. parliamentary majorities.

    She could have pointedly asked the question, is the PR list system the best electoral system for South Africa, and what are it’s benefits and limitations? That strikes me as a more compelling question (and she could have given her version of an answer), than calling the nation to arms to split the ANC and break its electoral dominance. She could still pick fights with Ebrahim Fakir, Steven Friedman, Richard Calland, Helen Zille, Andrew Feinstein and whomever else she chooses, but at least she’d be offering a more substantial contribution.

    As for citizens and politicians, distinguishing between politicians and citizens is fundamental to the mechanism of accountability. And accountability is hardly a luxuary, even if it sometimes feels like it is.

    On the PR list system, to my knowledge, it was preferred by the ANC during the transitional negotiations because since it is the simplest and most intuitive democratic electoral system, it would be best suited to a state wherein most of the electorate would be voting for the first time. I think Kader Asmal was in charge of the ANC committee looking into these things, though I think he preferred a constituency-based system. I’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.


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