South Africa Journal: The Life of the Party

When I worked as a speechwriter for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) in the South African parliament, it emerged that despite controlling just over 12% of the seats, the DA asked something like 70% of the questions in the legislature to which the government had to respond. Accordingly, the DA provided the basis for most of the media coverage of politics on any given day–not because the media liked the DA (it didn’t), but by default.

Yet the real political story–the facts that determined the country’s future direction on any given policy or path–was largely untold, because it was happening behind the scenes, in the secretive deliberations and whispers of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which controlled so many seats in the legislature that it could have amended the constitution unilaterally. Some of those debates are more open today, but the setup is the same.

This week’s news in South Africa is devoted not to debates between the ANC and the DA, but to squabbles in the ANC itself, with one key ANC-aligned union calling for President Jacob Zuma to resign. It will not happen, of course: Zuma remains in command of his party heading into next year’s election. Yet occasionally the insular ANC surprises, as in the ouster of Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, from leadership of the party in 2007.

There is a tedium and frustration to news in South Africa, when so much of the debate–like so much of the economy, really–orbits a dysfunctional organization like the ANC. For many, the best way to endure is to focus on what they can do in the private sector, and their private lives, leaving politics to others. There is no sense that an individual citizen can change much of anything. We are not there yet in the U.S., but it is one possible path.