Some people still believe in democracy

by Peter Watt

When you are involved in politics in an active way it can be quite easy to forget what really matters.  The fight becomes more important than the victory. Scoring points and getting one over on your opponents become what really matters. Of course losing is tough – but it is all too often actually losing, rather than the consequences of losing, that hurts the most. It is easy to see why this happens; politics can be an emotionally bruising affair. Getting on involves hours of leafleting, meetings and door knocking. You take to the stump armed only with your credibility and after all those hours spent on a single endeavour – winning – the outcome is obviously going to be felt pretty personally. All in all, politics can be a pretty nasty addiction if you get seriously hooked.

The AV referendum campaign has been a particularly classic case of a campaign fought between addicts. It has felt exclusive, otherworldly and somehow just not important. The key campaign messages seemed to be more point scoring between people in an elite club. There was a certainly a lot of shouting and calculation of the most tribally beneficial outcome. Yah-boo politics of the worst kind. As a result, the campaign has passed most non-politicos by. In fact, it has passed many politicos by as well.

It certainly hasn’t been the celebration of democratic renewal that I suspect the Yes campaign hoped for – whatever the result.

And that is why I was lucky to be in South Africa on Wednesday April 27. Why? Because it was “Freedom Day, an annual celebration of the first post-apartheid democratic elections in 1994. And it really was luck that I was there on that day by the way – we just happened to be on holiday.  Anyway, I spent the day with Vilma (my wife) and our kids on a tour of a local township with a man called Mawinde Khondlo, who set up a company that organises tours of his township called Buyambo Tours.  Mawinde established the company 12 years ago as he thought that a key part of local culture was being excluded from the tourist trail. He has done pretty well at his business, still lives in the township, brings money into the local economy and now happily has several competitors.

Mawinde spoke passionately about the improvements that are happening in his area – the new style government houses that are now being provided. There is still a waiting list but they have two bedrooms, electricity and water. He talked of the investment in schools, libraries and roads, and of the shared sense of optimism. It was really uplifting. And that was despite the obviously pretty tough conditions in which many, though by no means all, people lived.

We met a man who shared a two room, cardboard-roofed house with another five people. They were all waiting for their government houses, and his family still lived in the country. He told us about how he has spent two years volunteering as a police officer so that he could get the qualifications to become a paid officer – something he was hoping to become next year. We went to a youth rally outside a library where people were performing music and to a festival in sports field both celebrating democracy.

There was honesty about the problems – not enough jobs, economic inequality, HIV and drugs. But Mawinde was determined that we leave with a sense of people on the up; not down and depressed but looking forward to the future. I asked whether people were frustrated about the lack of progress on housing. There still seemed to be an awful lot of people living in shacks rather than the prized government houses. Providing these was a key ANC promise in 1994. He said that there had been progress and that people were still patient. They could still see improvements around them.

There are also local elections in South Africa this year on May 18. There are posters up on lampposts and walls all over the cities, towns and townships from a healthy selection of parties. The TV and radio stations have election coverage and some pretty heated debates going on about the progress and lack of progress being made. The post-apartheid white/black tensions are still there, but seem to be aired and discussed openly on phone-in shows. Many white voters are worried about the president of the ANC youth league, Julius Malema. He has said some controversial things about land reform; and what was interesting listening and reading about him was that he also seemed to divide many black voters as well.

We watched a lively debate on women’s issues on the main TV channel, SABC1, which focused on the role of local government in tackling inequality. The newspapers seemed to be covering the issues and what politicians were saying in detail – almost as much as the coverage given to the royal wedding. There was also some good satire with a comedy show that seemed to enjoy poking fun at President Zuma and his many wives. All in all, democracy still seems pretty popular in South Africa. People still believe that elections matter because they determine outcomes. It is strange that as democracies “mature”, this fundamental truth apparently becomes increasingly obscure.

Of course, democracy is still in a fledgling state in South Africa, so a direct comparison is unfair; but the contrast with our AV referendum and local election campaigns felt pretty stark. But then, if you make little attempt to engage people in what the outcome means to them; if you use language and arguments that seem to exclude;  and if you expect people to be interested in things that are mostly of interest to politicians, when most people are worrying about paying the mortgage, then don’t be surprised if they don’t listen to a word that you say.  Perhaps we should be asking the South African political parties for campaigning tips?

(I voted “yes”, by the way).

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.


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5 Responses to “Some people still believe in democracy”

  1. Interesting stuff about SA.
    Quite right about AV too, apart from the voting bit.

  2. iain ker says:

    Scoring points and getting one over on your opponents become what really matters.

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    Quite, which is why I really don’t understand why Ed Balls, who monumentally failed while in office, is seen as such a great asset to the Labour Party on the basis that ‘he can take the fight to the Tories’. By which I understand, he can shout and point a lot in PMQs and tour the studios being rude about everyone. Big Whup.

    I didn’t vote by the way – on the basis that the whole operation was a pointless, ridiculous, and expensive exercise in political vanity.

    There are 5.25 million on the dole and the country is bust, but the political class wastes it’s time on rubbish like AV.

    And the political class wonders why no-one likes it.

  3. paul barker says:

    Another excellent article but we shouldnt assume its over till it is.
    Milliband made 2 huge mistakes, refusing to campaign alongside Clegg & Farage & allowing most labour Politicians to join The NO side. Whatever the result he ends up looking weak, indecisive & petty.

  4. Alistair says:

    “Another excellent article but we shouldnt assume its over till it is.
    Milliband made 2 huge mistakes, refusing to campaign alongside Clegg & Farage & allowing most labour Politicians to join The NO side. Whatever the result he ends up looking weak, indecisive & petty.”

    Meanwhile while Miliband was sleeping, Scotland basically demonstrated a massive rejection to the “three main parties” – who needs AV when you can get independence and never have to have a Tory government again?

  5. iain ker says:

    who needs AV when you can get independence and never have to have a Tory government again?

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    Quite the opposite.

    Voting a tax and spend party in when you get the spend and someone else gets the tax is a no-brainer (for not very brainy people).

    Voting a tax and spend party in when you get the spend *and* you GET the tax is an entirely different proposition.

    Wee Eck wants to be able to borrow – like the big boys in proper countries get to.

    Bring it on.

    Independence would be followed very quickly by IMF intervention and coots – and not Tory type coots either; proper Eire type cuts.

    The Scots aka the Northern South-East-Englandish need, and would get, a very quick dose of something called REALITY.

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