Picture: THULANI MBELE
Picture: THULANI MBELE

There is nothing new about disgruntled, sidelined, ideologically differentiated politicians hiving off to form separate political parties. From the EFF in SA to the LibDems in the UK and the BJP in India, this is a well-trodden path. In SA some, like the EFF, have found a measure of success, while others such as Agang, the UDM and Cope have floundered.

What is interesting about Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba’s departure from the DA is that in the first instance they sought to develop a dialogue or movement.

Clearly citizens across the globe appear to be increasingly discontented about the way democracy works and they tend to regard political parties and politicians with growing scepticism and mistrust. SA is no exception.

When this discontent translates into a movement, an Arab Spring if you like, it has the potential to change the political landscape  for better or worse.

But these flowerings of uprisings are the result of concrete historical circumstances. They need a target, an enemy, and an alternative.

Given the complexity and diversity of demands from civil society and the uncertainty over whether citizens will truly participate if they are given the opportunity to do so, it remains questionable whether these initiatives will succeed in galvanising the process from dialogue to movement.

And if it does, make no mistake, it is the movement that will give rise to leaders — not the other way round. Wannabe leaders in search of a movement represents a folly-fuelled foray that is likely to end in tears. Maimane would benefit from understanding this.

He should also understand that movements aren’t started in private dining rooms, filled with prospective donors keen to gamble on a power play in sync with their interests. Movements are not proselytising churches that set out their stall to woo the flock and wow them with charismatic performances. Movements maketh the man, not the other way round.

If, however, electoral reform is your goal (as Maimane in part says) why not start an initiative like the one Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine did? They established the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in SA (Idasa), a non-partisan organisation that aimed to promote inclusive democracy by talking to people of all races within and outside the country. Its second aim was to find a nonracial and democratic alternative to the system of apartheid. It began with very few plans and very little money.

If the parlous state of the economy, the growing army of unemployed or issues around race is your focus (as Maimane again, in part, says), you need policies, a platform and the machinery of a party to proffer these. But Maimane says he is not forming a party.

On the other hand, Mashaba says he is doing just that. But his prospective party has no policies and feeds on populism. He seems intent at putting some of his not inconsiderable capital into the venture, and will no doubt persuade others who believe in his “get things done” approach to politics to do the same. Without a constituency or an institutional base this represents a tall order.

But wait, what if the Maimane Movement feeds, over time, into the political home Mashaba has created? If this is on the cards, it represents an attempt at a finesse, in the parlance of bridge. And given that politics isn’t bridge, it is a tad disingenuous.

Given the complexity and diversity of demands from civil society and the uncertainty of whether citizens will truly participate if they are given the opportunity to do so, it remains questionable whether the reforms mooted (no detail yet, only dialogue) will succeed in regaining citizens’ satisfaction with and trust in their political system and institutions. But a political party is another matter entirely.

The formation of a new party requires a position, an ideology, policies and persona. The ostensible play for power by the pastor and the populist needs to be made plain. This offering is premised on some form of “stealth democracy” in which decisions are supposedly taken by impartial and efficient experts independently from voters and party elites’ preferences, and by the movement for reform based no doubt on actions aiming at increasing direct participation, such as a more frequent use of referendums. This is where populism and the pastor meet.

It’s an interesting side show. Will it have any long-term traction? I doubt it. But then who am I, other than someone who believes in the primacy of politics? As Bernard Crick wrote in his seminal essay In Defence of Politics (1962)“Politics are, as it were, the marketplace and the price mechanism of all social demands — though there is no guarantee that a just price will be struck; and there is nothing spontaneous about politics — it depends on deliberate and continuous individual activity.”

The institutional wrongs were corrected in our transition to democracy and our constitution remains a responsible arbiter. Long may it last, and along the way let’s remember Crick’s prescient observation that “politics are the public actions of free men, freedom is the privacy of men from public actions”.

• Cachalia is a DA MP.