Thursday, 18 September 2008

New progressive political practice needed

Progressive politics at the moment is a cauldron of uncertainty, change and disarray. The dynamics raise fundamental questions about politics. They also raise as deep questions about progressive politics and its capacity and methods for bringing into being a just world.

The Mbeki / Zuma clash forms a vibrant, dynamic and - to many - ominous backdrop. Interestingly, Polokwane raised the questions of the nature of politics and their implications for democratic change into the future. Polokwane and the antecedent debates broached the matter of: what kind of political party - utilizing what kind of internal political practices and external political priorities - would play the vangaurd role in sustaining the gains of liberation?

Worryingly though, Polokwane and post-Polokwane has been unable to provide answers to the questions it raised.

How we resolve our challenges in Mzansi will inform progressive politics much more widely (in the developing world). Who leads (who is the motive force for change), how such leadership is to be given to society and how any leading role is integrated into broader democratic politics - these are questions core to the sustainability of progressive politics.

We need a new praxis - the old has run into contradictions and fundamental problems. For me, there are three pointers as discussion and debate unfolds (or should unfold) regarding the renewal and reengineering of progressive politics.

Pointer 1: The first is the work of Ari Sitas (still to be published) around what he terms neo-Ghandi-ism. For Sitas, this family of ideas (which includes Frere-ism, Nyerere-ism and the key ideas in Ghandi’s political practice) revolves around voluntarism, co-operatives and non-violent popular action. He notes that historically and in anti-colonial struggles, neo-Ghandiism was trumped by Fanonism (informing a praxis dominated by violent overthrow and militarism). Many victories followed, but the gains made by the latter praxis now appear to be very short term.

Pointer 2. The second pointer is Joe Slovo's paper: Has Socialism Failed? The paper deals with the serious (fatal) ailments of communism as practiced in the Soviet Union; but it also refers to the role of democratic and left parties in driving society-wide change. Slovo raised pithy questions about how a party should behave internally and towards wider questions of democracy in society if it wanted to sustain transformation to a new society. Although debated in the Communist Party, this paper was largely ignored by the African National Congress. The lessons it put forward were not disputed nor rejected by progressive forces; they were simply neglected and not internalised. This paper ought to play a role in any refashioning of progressive politics.

Pointer 3: Here I refer to the range of issues, focuses and principles I have harped on about in my blogs and other writing. I believe this combination of ideas of ideas could be seen/used as an input to shaping a new politics. This blog is no a place for detail but the focuses and principles are:
- participation, and a leadership which responds well to broad and substantive partipation in policymaking processes.
- inclusiveness; in a world torn about by divisions, progressive parties should embrace inclusiveness and work towards social cohesion between estranged groups.
- a poverty focus; in this regard, progressive parties should lead in the fight against poverty. Furthermore, in addition to strategies focusing on the economy, they should use methods that prioritise involvement and participation of the poor.
- intellectual engagement; following the best traditions, progressive parties should encourage debate, should demand that leading activists engage with ideas and data and should subscribe to evidence-based policymaking when in government. Political practice and engagement, especially during election time, should be about real issues as opposed to mud-slinging and expediency associated with factionalism. Rationality should be encouraged, blind followership discouraged and debate valued.

South Africa is seen the world over as playing a leading role in building a world that is peaceful, where social justice prevails, where freedom and democracy replaces authoritarianism and where a dynamic citizenship is encouraged. Internally, however, we are at a major crossroads. This question has surfaced powerfully: what are the means to sustain our democracy? We have this year learnt bitterly that a new and "best of breed" constitution is not on its own the answer. Leadership, good politics and a progressive praxis - all these are vitally neccssary to sustain us on the path of transformation towards a winning nation.

What are your views? What kind of political practice is needed during the reign of Jacob Zuma to ensure progressive politics moves beyond crisis and continues to deepen democratic social change? Please add your views by leaving a comment.