Local government should be where future presidents learn the ropes, writes Xolela Mangcu
South Africa is crying out for an institutional revolution that would address four problematic aspects of our transition to democracy.
These features were probably unavoidable at democracy's founding, but the experience of the past 16 years should give us pause to review them.
First, democratic revolutions are always imposed from the top after bargaining by leadership elites. This inevitably leads to the "centralisation" of politics. The achievement of democracy in 1994 resulted in the neglect of what was once the most dynamic sector in the political and intellectual life of South Africa's progressive movement. This was perhaps to be expected as local leaders took up jobs in municipal, provincial and national government, and in municipal, provincial and national legislatures.
The less attention local government received, the greater were the prospects that corrupt politicians would take over and run local municipalities as their personal fiefdoms using patronage to enrich themselves, their families and their political supporters. This has been a festering sore in our body politic for a long time partly because we have not developed a language of local democracy. And yet if we look at the experience of other countries, national leadership tends to percolate from the bottom up. Whether we are talking about China or the US or France, future leaders first obtain political apprenticeship as mayors of towns or leaders of regional governments or prefectures. In these societies there is power and prestige in being a mayor or a regional leader without being corrupt.
The second problematic aspect has to do with the concentration of power in individual leaders. This feature shows up in its most grotesque form in battles over succession in the ANC. Whoever becomes the next leader is likely to disappoint in one form or the other; it is in the nature of politics that no leader can make everyone happy. The problem in our case is that the person who ultimately prevails is the one who is able to amass a personal following within the dominant political party.
This is democracy all right but, as James MacGregor Burns observes, the real test is whether such leaders "can help new nations develop the political movements or parties that convert personal followings into durable ones, personal affect and symbol into policy and programme". African societies, including South Africa, have failed in this precisely because we have not developed the kind of civic institutions upon which sustainable development depends.
Robert Putnam calls this civic infrastructure "social capital". Social capital is useful in its own right - by promoting associational life - but also to the extent that it links citizens to processes of governmental decision making. Local government is the place where citizens have the best chance of involvement in the policy process for it is at this level that individuals are transformed into citizens.
Cornell University's John Forester sums up the role of local government in the democratic process as follows: "We need to build not simply marketplaces for exchange, but democratic public spheres - settings where citizens can speak and listen, argue and negotiate, come into conflict and yet act together."
Which leads me to the third problematic feature: the way we think about local government in general and cities in particular. Regrettably, we think of cities in mostly managerial, financial terms, using such hackneyed terms as "world-class" cities. Yet cities have historically been the ultimate sites for human association. To be sure, I am not one of those modernists who believes that cities dissolve ethnic and racial identities. Rather they create spaces for mutual intelligibility because of their institutional density. It is in cities that, in Benedict Anderson's formulation, there can be a "community in anonymity". Cities are where the nation can be concretely imagined. According to Harvard Law School's Gerald Frug "cities ought to teach people how to interact with unfamiliar strangers".
Chicago provides the best example of how a city can be a site for democratic action. The election of Harold Washington as the first black mayor of that notoriously racist and corrupt city created a tidal wave that led to the emergence of Carol Moseley Braun as the first African-American female senator and Barack Obama as the first African-American president.
As Tim Black noted: "The first African-American president could only have come from Chicago"; the city from which, in Richard Wright's formulation, "the most incisive and radical Negro thought had come".
David Remnick, author of The Bridge, puts it this way: "There is no telling how Obama might have developed had he answered an ad to work in some other city, but it is clear that the history of African-Americans in Chicago - and the unique political history of Chicago, culminating in Washington's attempt to form a multiracial coalition - provided Obama with a rich legacy to learn from."
Thus the history of the city, made up of its colourful black political and business leaders (Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, Ebony magazine, Carol Moseley Braun, Michael Jordan and ultimately Harold Washington) was the magnet that attracted a young Obama. And when he got there he built a reputation as a community organiser outside of the party. It was only when electoral politics beckoned that he featured in the party. And that is the way it should be - political parties should draw their talent from society instead of stifling it to promote party hacks. Obama initially wanted to be mayor because that is an important position in its own right; his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has returned to campaign for mayor.
We rarely think of cities as spaces where the young could begin to experiment and explore their leadership potential. For this to happen we would need a political system variegated enough for them to play different political roles without everyone queueing up at the trough of the presidency or premiership.
Finally, in place of the big leader we must develop democratic leadership at local level. The most important learning curve for Obama took place after he lost to Bobby Rush in the 2000 election for Congress; in the taunts from other black senators in the Illinois State Senate that he was not black enough; and in the challenge of running for the Senate.
By the time he ran for president, he had been somehow chastened but also better prepared to lead. Leaders should be shaped by institutions instead of trying to shape institutions in their own image. Leaders should have different institutional experiences inside and outside of government before they can take on the task of leading for everyone. That way they might gain perspectives they otherwise would not have if they spent their lives only in the party. The best way to start is by building local institutions as the basis for local leadership development, and have that experience percolate through the political system.
Xolela Mangcu is convenor of the Platform for Public Deliberation at the University of Johannesburg