/ 2 November 2022

South African coalition politics doesn’t have to be a ‘dirty game’

Graphic Tl Qobo Coalitions Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

We often hear that “politics is a dirty game”. That’s in response to, among other things, the supposed lack of ethical principles among some politicians acting mostly in their self-interest.  

This is evident in the instability of coalition politics in South Africa. For instance, the recent toppling of both the speaker and mayor in Johannesburg came after minority parties supposedly in a coalition with the Democratic Alliance (DA), switched sides in violation of coalition agreements, after failing to get positions from the DA. Some, especially from the African Christian Democratic Party, were found to have accepted bribes to vote for the ANC to retake the council. 

A similar thing happened in Nelson Mandela Bay where DA councillors took bribes to vote against their own party to oust Athol Trollip as the mayor

This raises the following questions: Is politics doomed to be a dirty game as seen by the recent turbulence of coalitions? How can good ethical behaviour make coalition politics work? And how can it be attained? 

Knowledge hierarchy

It is important to keep in mind that there are no quick fixes when it comes to ethics and ethical behaviour. It is a process. And a fundamentally important part of this process has to do with knowledge — the hierarchy of knowledge, how it works and how knowledge can be created or designed. To understand this hierarchy, one must grasp its different elements, courtesy of futurist Philip Spies.

According to Spies, “data” are untransformed “bits” of knowledge material and “information” is transformed data that has practical “message value” for particular applications — it usually describes. “Knowledge” is contextualised information within a given application system — such as a political party — that often instructs, controls and determines. 

“Insight and understanding” are the ability to apply knowledge effectively within the broader context of life. And “wisdom” or “practical wisdom” is the ability to ask the right questions and to make the right choices about life. 

Applied to politics

So, how does all this apply to politics? Data in politics refer, among other things, to public opinion, electoral data and budgets. Information rests on transformed data, in other words, the value messaged by this data for the people working with it. For example: How many votes do you need to win an election? How much money has been allocated for procurement? 

And knowledge helps one to contextualise the information based on the message sent by important political data. Sadly, within politics, public opinion, votes and the availability of money are often narrowly utilised to only benefit the individual or political party. Examples of this abound in South Africa.

This is in another sense confirmed by Spies who reasons that “data”, “information” and “knowledge” usually form the basis of competition or a competitive strategy. They are normally applied for self-interest or individual benefit. “Insight and understanding” plus “wisdom”, on the other hand usually form the basis of co-operation or a co-operative strategy to benefit society. 

When an individual or group of people develop insight and understanding regarding the knowledge they possess, it usually leads to practical wisdom. Practical wisdom not only asks the right questions to benefit the broader society, but it also focuses on making the right choices about life in which individuals can flourish and communities can thrive.

Practical wisdom 

In this whole hierarchy of knowledge, practical wisdom is key because it has the interest of the other(s) at heart. Stellenbosch philosopher Anton van Niekerk refers to the French phenomenologist, Immanuel Levinas, who insists that “I am” to the extent that “I am there for (the sake of) others”. One must be “for” the other before you can be “with” the other. This responsibility is coupled with practical wisdom. 

Van Niekerk further reasons that practical wisdom helps me to “act in accordance with precepts or action guides that I acknowledge, but in such a way that they are prudently applied to the situation in which I find myself and where I must act in a way that I can live with the consequences”. 

However, we do not always know exactly how to apply these precepts and action guides. Therefore, we need deliberation that requires dialogue with ourselves and others. This kind of deliberation implies that we carefully weigh up the claim of the norm against the requirements of the situation while bearing in mind the potential consequences of our actions. 

Is this not the approach we need, particularly in coalition politics in South Africa? Practical wisdom through deliberation to benefit all citizens? There is a need for a rational interchange between ethical norms and the requirements of the specific situation coalition partners find themselves in at a particular point in time — an ethical know-how that is co-determined by the intrinsic values of the different parties involved

For politics to benefit us all, we will have to build practical wisdom. In other words, we must be focused on ethical behaviour. We must be principle-driven, not money-driven. We will have to develop insight into our purpose and function as politicians in order to benefit society. We cannot disconnect ourselves from communities. 

But we will also have to build insight and understanding. We’ll have to understand our environment, what our organisation or party stands for and for what we would like to be remembered. We will have to analyse trends, norms and contexts. We’ll have to develop different workable scenarios for communities and/or a country to prosper.

Where this is in place, we will stand a chance to make sense of what is happening around us and what we must do, based on our gained knowledge and information. This is how one builds a more ideal society, a good life for all. 

But these are things we learn in the practice of daily life. It does not occur overnight. It takes time. We learn it in many ways, but mainly through deliberation and co-operation. Of course, these efforts have elements of uncertainty, risk and fallibility, but this is what we continually must aspire to in South Africa. 

Politics need not be doomed to be a dirty game as recently seen by the turbulence of coalitions. Good ethical behaviour is possible and can make coalition politics work. But then, we need to, as politicians and political parties, apply this hierarchy of knowledge. 

This can only happen when we move from data to (practical) wisdom. Then we have a chance to act in the interest of the citizens of our country. Wisdom is the ability to increase effectiveness. To utilise expertise. Wisdom is more a matter of learning than earning. But if we are going to get stuck in the first three phases of this hierarchy, this will probably keep directing us to self-interest and personal gain at the expense of our country’s development. 

Dr Chris Jones is chief researcher in the department of systematic theology and ecclesiology, and also head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University. His research focuses on ethics, moral leadership, human rights and fighting corruption. He is also involved in various community development projects.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.