Don’t even bother, Mmusi. Your ‘people’s dialogue’ will be a flop

Don’t even bother, Mmusi. Your ‘people’s dialogue’ will be a flop

Away from the Eskom horror show, far be it for me to rain on the “People’s Dialogue” to be launched soon by Herman Mashaba and Mmusi Maimane.

However, a weather check may be in order to see whether a shaft of light may yet appear in our current darkness.

There is an elephant’s graveyard in South Africa filled with such previous and entirely failed efforts.

Much has been made, or lampooned through the rabbit hole of recent memory, of the launch back in February 2013 by Mamphela Ramphele of the Agang movement.

Lauded by the usual suspects in the media and the chattering classes, Mamphele did not initially commence with a political party, but what she curiously termed a “party political platform”, due to a series of “national dialogues” she promised to hold in the lead up to the 2014 elections.

On the eve of the May 7 2014 poll, Ramphele entered into a five-day relationship with the Democratic Alliance, which ended in acrimony.

The DA won 22 new seats in that election, and Ramphele’s go-it-alone Agang won just two. Ramphele would soon enough desert the party she founded, declining to even sit for it in parliament. By the next election in 2019, it would disappear altogether.

Of course, with any launch of any new movement, such as Agang and doubtless soon enough, the “People’s Dialogue”, the name and spirit of Nelson Mandela will be invoked as a touchstone of values for the sort of society to which we are always summoned – grounded in constitutional values, selfless leadership, struggle and sacrifice etc – and are,  always and everywhere, disappointed by its absence in the leadership that follows the great man.

Ramphele did just this at her gauzy launch nearly seven years ago at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg. At the time, Mandela was in the twilight of his final year, but that did not prevent Ramphele from invoking his spirit. Bemoaning a “massive failure of governance”, she declared in an interview with The Guardian after her launch that she knew the Mandela of 1994 would have been “absolutely disappointed” in the state of the nation circa 2014. How did she divine that? “I’m very close to him, and we have had several conversations, and he would be the first to acknowledge that he failed …”

I am actually not so sure. I don’t doubt she had the conversations with Mandela, who was nothing if not brutal in dissecting the ailments of both his government and its successors. But in multiple conversations I had with him, his complex personality was also defined by – perhaps its central political feature  – an ironclad and transcendent loyalty to the ANC.

Ramphele lacked the pulling power, however, of Roelf Meyer. He, like Maimane and Mashaba, decided to quit his party – he was the co-founder of the UDM that he had launched in 1998 with Bantu Holomisa.

By 2001, he had tired of both the party and the limits of political life, and he too decided to launch a dialogue to “encourage South Africans to be involved in national causes”.

I attended its launch at a glitzy event in April 2001 at the Sandton Convention Centre, and was not merely an interested observer. I had some concern, given I led the opposition at the time, that Meyer’s “Civil Society Initiative” would suck much of the oxygen and the money away from the DA towards something perceived to be more “on-side” and less threatening than the partisan movement I led.

Meyer was able to inspan to his launch and movement not just one but two of the most prominent former presidents bestriding the world 18 years ago: Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.

Meyer did not have to invoke the spirit of Mandela to legitimise his movement; the great man appeared in person to bless the event with an inaugural address.

But the words of Mandela on that day defined precisely how he saw the need and the severe limits of any civil society movement, standing outside political or state power.

“It is not proper,” Mandela cautioned, “to approach the subject of civil society from a point of view that government represents an inherent negative force in society and that civil society was needed to curb it. Such an approach runs the risk of projecting civil society as an adjunct to the organised political opposition.”

Neither Mandela nor I, from our different perspectives, had much to worry about then. Despite Meyer’s standing, sincerity and the star power he assembled for its launch, little more was heard of his initiative, barely remembered today.

On this unpromising terrain, sans philosophy, resources or a discernible and differentiating offer, and in a country now grappling with problems unimaginable 18 or even five years ago, arrives a “people’s dialogue”.

Both its founders – like Meyer before them – tired of the constraints of existing parties that, like him, they had once led or, like Ramphele, started a dialogue with much fanfare.

It was perhaps symbolic that on the day of the death of ANC veteran and former MP Ben Turok on Monday, Maimane told a radio interviewer that it was entirely possible the “people’s dialogue” could morph into a new political party. Turok, by contrast, did not regard party membership, however much he detested some of the people who led the ANC latterly, as a moveable feast. You joined because you believed, and you stayed because your belief system was not transferable.

Adriaan Basson, News24 editor in chief, suggests the  “people’s dialogue” could be the “one to shake up our politics”. Maybe, but perhaps not: philosopher George Santayana reminds us that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
@TonyLeonSA.

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