The phenomenon of personality politics or an obsession thereof is gradually receding in our country and this can only be good for our democracy.
Coming from a background where the founding president, Nelson Mandela, of our democracy was larger than life, this phenomenon became an inherent part of our new democracy. Although always at pains to warn that he was no Messiah, Mandela was reluctantly pushed into a cult personality of some kind.
The ANC was ready to and did capitalize on his larger than life image in the eyes of the voters to benefit at the polls. Even at his old age when he was supposed to be in retirement and resting, the ANC would use him as part of its electioneering. Nothing wrong with that. Mandela was ANC. However, he remained acutely aware of the potential threat to democracy of cult personalities in politics. He was self-effacing in his evaluation of himself. Thus, citizens could relax knowing that Mandela could never fall into the trap of being a cult personality or regarding himself as being above the party and therefore untouchable.
After Mandela's exit then entered Thabo Mbeki. He was an intellectual and an ideas man. What he lacked in personality power he compensated for it through his sharp mind. But Mbeki himself eschewed cult personalities in politics. This we saw vividly coming out in a letter he wrote to his successor, President Jacob Zuma, in 2008 in which he reminded him about how the ANC had consistently repudiated the "highly noxious phenomenon of the cult of the personality." In not so many words, Mbeki was cautioning Zuma about falling into the trap of being a cult personality.
It is common knowledge that when Zuma came into power, he brought more of his charisma and personality than he did his intellect and ideas. Therefore, it was inevitable that both the public and the opposition would focus mainly on Zuma the personality than what he stood for. Unfortunately, that gave rise to a toxic environment in our politics in which the focus was on the individual. Zuma was the butt of insults, especially from the EFF, and that came with the hurling of insults even inside the hallowed chambers of Parliament. Robustness was confused with rudeness and insults substituted ideas and policy debates. Those were the results of a phenomenon where an individual dominated our body politic. Zuma's own conduct did not help matters.
In the current era we have seen decorum returning to Parliament and have even witnessed healthy political bantering among political parties. People can disagree without being disagreeable.
Unfortunately, the behaviour learnt by the public from the hostility of the recent past is still with us. When citizens are not happy with whatever issue, we see insults flying around and, worse, sometimes breaks violence out. Political leaders must reflect on this and ask themselves whether their conduct, words and disposition towards their rivals has not influenced the conduct of their followers.
Ditto when there are labour disputes between employers and employees. We have seen property being destroyed simply because people are angry or dissatisfied with their conditions of employment. Often, an individual then becomes the subject of their anger. But this obsession with an individual, sometimes reducing a complex situation to one person, has at times manifested among labour union leaders themselves. I have heard union leaders calling rival union leader’s derogatory names - as if rival unions are the major challenge facing workers. But that is what happens when we move from tackling issues to focus on individuals - we lose perspective of the issue at hand.
I believe it is possible to resolve whatever challenges or differences we may have without getting violent or insulting each other. Parliamentarians have started showing the way. In fact, I liked it the other day when the ANC and the EFF co-operated on a bill that needs to passed. They agreed to work together without necessarily collapsing their political identities. Therein lies the formula for labour, for example
There should be issues that Cosatu and Saftu can take up together on behalf of workers. The two are not and should not be enemies. The same applies to NUM and Amcu. They should be cooperating with each other to take forward the workers' struggles. There are plenty of issues that they can tackle together. Take, for example, the issue of safety in the mines. That is what can and should unite Amcu and the NUM and they don't need to collapse their identities in working together on this challenge. Even in their diversity they can still be unite. I am raising the issue of mining trade unions as an example but the same can be said about many other sectors in society. In the religious sector, much can be achieved if we were to focus less on the personalities and cooperate on common issues and programmes. Yes, personalities are important but they come and go. Issues on the other hand will always be with us. As the saying goes, only average minds discuss people. Superior minds deal and discuss ideas and issues. Leaders have the responsibility peaceful environment. SA will be a better country if we can all be preoccupied with our issues than we are with personalities.
PASTOR RAY McCAULEY IS THE PRESIDENT OF RHEMA FAMILY CHURCHES AND CO-CHAIR OF NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS COUNCIL (NRLC)