The rise of the political professional has paralysed SA parties
Rupert Lorimer's legacy throws into stark relief the power-grabbing spectacle our politics has become
And then there were none.
That was the thought that occurred last Thursday, in Bryanston, Sandton, when I attended the memorial service for Rupert Lorimer.
Until his death in early January, Lorimer was the last living member of the group of six new MPs who, in 1974, were elected to parliament for the Progressive Party, to serve alongside its long-time, sole representative, Helen Suzman.
His death just two months after the passing of the higher-profile Alex Boraine, draws the curtain on an old era. But it poses some questions for both the party that Lorimer supported for most of his life and for the country he adopted as home, as it heads, again, to the polls.
Lorimer (whom I joined in parliament in 1989) was more a workhorse than a show pony. But as his son James, currently a DA MP, mentioned in his tribute, a lower- profile approach sometimes reaps outsize results, especially when combined with a “let’s talk to everyone” approach. And it helps if you understand your opponent’s psyche.
During the heyday of apartheid forced removals, Lorimer jnr recounted at the memorial the following lesser known story about his dad:
“He was a parliamentarian who talked to everybody, even those parliamentarians in the National Party. He understood them and used this sometimes to win victories that would otherwise not have been won.”
He recounted how an intervention stopped the forced removal of 100,000 people from Soekmekaar (a rural town in today’s Limpopo province, southeast of Louis Trichardt) to Dendron, more than 60km away.
“He persuaded the portfolio committee to go and do oversight. He took them to a half-built house and talked about how the owner had been building the house over a series of years. As he scraped together money, he had come up on weekends, from his job in Pretoria, with some cement here, and a window frame over there. Dad finished by saying: ‘And you see over there – that was where the owner hanged himself when he found out he would lose everything he’d built.’
“That was sufficient,” James concluded, “to bring home to the Nationalists the gravity of what they were doing and shame them into quietly dropping that particular forced removal.”
In that one small story, some larger meanings about the effect of incremental change and reform – or shafts of occasional light – in the darkest of political eras.
First, the polarity caused by apartheid meant, at least for its opponents, that its deep immorality and inhumanity did not require feats of vast imagination or ideological dexterity to muster opposition. As James said of Rupert, a useful shorthand for the liberal opposition back then: “He hated bullying, and the everyday casual cruelty of apartheid.”
But, now 25 years into SA’s brave new world of democracy, the verities of the past either do not apply or are no longer seen as fit for purpose in the complexities, and the politics, of the country in 2019.
This has led to disillusionment among some who blazed the path for today’s Democratic Alliance. James Lorimer recounted the disappointment of his own father: “He was deeply saddened that the party which he had served for more than 30 years began to adopt the beliefs about the pre-eminence of race, that he had fought against for so long.”
But there is a second, perhaps less obvious, aspect in reflecting on the contested contribution of the small sliver of largely English-speaking white South Africans who back in the early 1970s stood up against the apartheid monolith.
This is not that they or their political cause did it with such bravery or effectiveness that the machinery of state ground to a halt. Of course it did not. But the more interesting question, given the long odds and uncertain prospects they faced, is why they did it at all.
Paul Johnson, the historian, described “the great human scourge of the 20th century” as “the rise of the professional politician”.
What is less noted about Lorimer and his colleagues who joined Suzman in parliament in 1974, is that none of them were “professional politicians”. Each came from varied professional backgrounds, which suggested that their motivations for entering public life could not be attributed to seeking employment from the state, in the absence of any other career prospects. And it was hardly about power. They were just seven out of 166 MPs.
This meant the cause that drew them into politics was more a vocation than a work-seeking, power-grabbing opportunity. Also, it meant that each of them had, in Denis Healey’s phrase, a “hinterland” of experiences and a reservoir of ideas to draw upon in formulating responses to the causes of their times.
Today, in SA, and certainly in most other democracies, the citizen-politician has been almost wholly eclipsed by the rise of the political professional. And given the dysfunctionalities in the polities in as wide an arc as the distance from SA to Britain and to the US, this phenomenon might be one clue for their respective paralyses. And the narrowness of the political leaderships’ views, bar perhaps Donald Trump. Indeed, his multiple missteps and flaws were, in his supporters’ estimation at least, offset by the fact that before the presidency, he had never been a professional, or even an elected, politician.
The Bosasa bribes scandal currently unfolding in gory, Technicolor detail at the Zondo commission suggests that professional politicians are easy to bribe; or, worse, the very idea of public service is not entered with a desire to “do good” (however imperfect, and however easy to deride) but by a rapacious need to get ahead and to be materially rewarded.
Once again the new SA might display this on steroids, but it too is a hangover from the old. As the acerbic Ken Owen, a former newspaper editor, noted of the apartheid system and the multiple parliaments and homeland bureaucracies it spawned: “You either get your noses in the trough or you freeze in the cold.”
Unconsciously, no doubt, Jacob Zuma, kingpin of state sleaze, once echoed this many years later by reminding an audience: “It is very cold outside the ANC.”
But for an hour or so last week in Bryanston, it was useful to be reminded that sometimes politics and politicians, even those who do not have highways or places named in their honour, actually can be both decent and honourable. In today’s country and world, that is a pretty good epitaph.