In the furies of social media, it is worth a reminder that obituary writers declaring the death of political parties often turn out to be premature. Or even dead wrong.
In 1994, at the dawn of our democracy, many death notices were penned for the Democratic Party, which had a dreadful election on the back of which its leader quit.
As head of the reconstruction team charged with rebuilding the opposition then, I was negatively inspired by the example of the recently dethroned Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell, who managed to convert her governing party from majority party to a two-seat parliamentary splinter.
I suggested to a press critic at the time, Allister Sparks, that like the Canadian Tories would do over time, the opposition here would rebound (as it duly did five years later).
A decade-plus afterwards, the Conservatives won power, holding it for nine years until 2015. This week they received more votes than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and forced him into a minority government.
Closer to home we have this week’s extraordinary election in Botswana. For the past 50-plus years, the Botswana Democratic Party has been the only party of government there. Now it is unravelling.
At the time of writing the full results were not posted. But because its former leader and president, Ian Khama, renounced his handpicked successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, and dumped the party founded by his own father, Africa’s most enduring democracy is gripped by uncertainty.
Boris Johnson might or might not pull off a last-minute Brexit deal with the EU, but it’s a racing certainty that he will defeat into second place, at least, the ailing and confused Labour Party, whenever he manages to call an election. But go back to 2005, when Labour’s Tony Blair was electorally unchallengeable. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a political writer, published a bestseller entitled The Strange Death of Tory England. The “dead” party was back in power in five years.
In all the churn here around the DA, it is easy to lose sight of something many South Africans share, even those who might never even vote for it: an appreciation of its key importance as an essential knot in the fragile weave of what our chief justice termed, in his famous Nkandla judgment, “our democratic project”.
Tolstoy’s reminder that “the leaves enchant us far more than the roots” is true. Headlines and arriving and departing political personalities command far more attention than underlying realities and often essential qualities.
One non-negotiable characteristic for endurance in opposition politics everywhere – especially here – was coined by a liberal veteran, the late Colin Eglin. His currency was “the politics of the long haul”.
Eglin, who served two stints as leader of the opposition, sat on the back benches when his first leadership period was terminated by an unhappy party. He then went on, even after resigning his leadership a second time, to play a big role in the drafting of the current constitution.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC chief negotiator back then, was another “long hauler” of note. He removed himself entirely from frontline politics after 1996, his claims on the presidency having been rebuffed. He sat out the next 16 years, until in 2012 he was elected deputy president of the ANC. Six years later, in February 2018, he was elected president of SA.
Quite how he prefers a long-term strategy over short-term attention grabbing was referenced in his movie choice; he told the Economist last week that a favourite film is Force 10 from Navarone: “British commandos try to blow up a dam so that the water will sweep away a bridge that the Nazis want to use.
When the explosives go off, nothing happens. The commandos are furious. ‘It didn’t work!’ they say. But the explosives expert tells them to wait. The dam is damaged and will soon collapse, he says. Once the fuse has been lit there is no going back.”
The trick on both sides of the political aisle is to lead with a long-term vision, navigate current crises with speed and purpose and select the right target for the delayed fuse. And not blow yourself up in the process. Perseverance, in other words, plus decisive leadership.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
Featured in The Sunday Times