Redefining Politics And How We Think About It

This brief discusses politics of old and new and attempts to draw attention to the relationship between the government and the people. This brief is derived from discussions held, and ideas shared, at a conference hosted by the Goedgedacht Forum titled “COVID-19 Kindness: How Should We Do Politics Differently in South Africa?”
Redefining Politics And How We Think About It

What is Politics?

If I were to ask the question - what does politics mean to you - there is a good chance your mind jumps straight to political parties. However, politics is more than that. In essence, politics is the way interactions are formalised and structured. It is defined differently according to different sources but essentially it is “the activities of the government, members of law-making organisations, or people who try to influence the way a country [or society or community] is governed”.[i]

Old politics, or politics as we know it, is characterised as hierarchical, confrontational, and conflict based. Fundamentally, what old politics comes down to is power – the fight for power and retention of that power, as power is control. This can be in government, churches, taxi associations or even trade unions. In old politics, the voices of the masses are lost as the politicians are under the mistaken impression that they hold all the power. They believe they can create the agenda and are not accountable to those who put them in that position.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there is a new politics emerging - a politics of the people. Lockdown created many hardships for numerous people whether it be loss of friends and family, jobs, income, food security or even mental health conditions. However, lockdown also created an informal structure of communities, civil society and NGOs alike who came together, who offered support in terms of food parcels, created community food gardens, or provided places for people to self-isolate. It highlighted the importance of community leaders and what a community can achieve if they work together. It showed hope, where there previously was none.

Understanding the Relationship Between Government and the People

Since politics is about power, the question arises as to who that power lies with – the people or the politicians? The relationship between the government and the people is akin to a marriage. You need to think carefully who you choose to ‘go to bed with’. Part of this decision means a consideration of the ideals and morality of either party to the marriage. A vote for a politician or political party is a relationship, it is the acceptance of their proposal. Their proposal being their manifesto and what they stand for. For the relationship to remain healthy there needs to be an acceptance that without the one there will not be the other. Politicians need to accept that without the vote they will have no power, and the people need to realise that it is their vote that carries the power.

Gottman, a renowned psychologist focusing on divorce and marital stability, has reimagined the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse as Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.[ii]

Criticism encompasses attacking the core personality or character of a person.[iii] We are, and probably have been for some time, a hateful society where we turn on each other without much provocation. Our criticisms stem from the political narratives about our differences where blame is shifted from one to another.

Contempt involves criticism but “assumes a position of moral superiority” - it is the intentional insult or abuse of a person based on the feeling that you are superior to the other.[iv] Those in government often leave us, the people, feeling helpless and that we have to rely on them to create the life that we want. But it is their very actions that are placing us in this position. By acting in a manner contrary to the common good, e.g. through corrupt activities, the government are showing us that they do not feel we can hold them too account, they are superior to us, and control our narrative.  

Defensiveness is the manner in which one reverses the blame and plays the innocent victim rather than taking any responsibility for the fault.[v] This Horseman probably needs little explanation, but one need only look at any news story containing a failure by government, or a public department, and excuses are the name of the game. Blame is shifted to everyone else, but to themselves.

Finally, the last Horseman, stonewalling comprises shutting down from interaction, withdrawing from the conversation, avoiding the issues and usually engaging in distracting behaviours.[vi] How many questions remain unanswered or problems unsolved, too many to count. Failures or incompetence on behalf of government is usually covered up with a “well look what we did here” or other behaviour simply designed to distract the public long enough in the hope that we forget the first wrong.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are clearly present within our current system of government. If our political parties do not want us getting a divorce in order to find someone who treats us better, they need start practicing putting effort into the relationship and being faithful. The first essential step, Gottman advises, is recognising the presence of the Four Horsemen and then replacing actions with healthy and productive communication and patterns.[vii]

The Challenges We Face

A new way of politics will not be easy. We will face a number of challenges along the road to improvement. First and foremost, there will be resistance by those who engage in old politics that has the entrenched power. The power and the achievement of it is idolised by those party to it. Due to a lack of accountability, those in power can corrupt it and meld it to their own benefit. If they were using that power to benefit the people, we would not be having this discussion.

A second, and critical, challenge is education. As mentioned at the beginning of this brief, people usually equate politics with political parties. There is no education on what politics is, what it actually entails, or that it should be used in a way to promote the common good of the population. Rather, a person’s first introduction to politics is to political parties, whether it be through the various youth leagues or through voting for the first time. Unfortunately, this may lead to a situation where the motive for engaging in politics is not for the common good but because they can personally benefit from such position as others have before them.

The third challenge, is the dual concepts of accountability and transparency. Leaders are only generally very visible during the time of voting and once in a position, accountability seems to become a foreign concept. Politicians should be accountable to the electorate and not to the political party to which they belong. With increased accountability we will see increased transparency, and vice versa, because if the electorate realise that it is them who hold the power, it will be up to those in political positions to answer to it. We can demand transparency and accountability.

A Different Politics for a Better and Kinder Future

In order to move into a better and kinder future the peoples’ mindset needs to change. This has already started with the little steps taken during the lockdown to assist others in what would traditionally be seen as the role of the government. The people have agency and they have the power, we just need to learn how to harness and exercise it in a meaningful manner.

This starts on the ground, at the grassroots level, and with the help of civil society, activists, and community leaders. We need to take advantage of our available resources. We are a nation made up of many diverse experiences, skills, talents and knowledge – the available network is large and it would be a shame not organise and mobilise it to the benefit of all the people of South Africa.

We need to promote the idea of community forums and involvement. The participation of the people in matters that directly affect them in their own communities will assist in structuring the people in such a manner as to hold those in power accountable. It will provide a means in which the unheard voices are brought into the discussion and political arena. Finally, it will assist in educating everyone as to what politics actually entails and how each person’s involvement is essential to building a better future for us all.


Previously politics has been used as a way to separate and segregate the people. However, this no longer needs to be the case. We are large society comprised of a variety of individuals, experiences, talents and skills. We can harness these for the greater good. We can take back the power, demand accountability and show government how they should be interacting with their people. Lockdown brought with it a power shift, the government needs us and not the other way around as the power ultimately lies with the people.

Chelsea Ramsden
Senior Legal Researcher

I would like to thank the Goedgedacht Forum for hosting this important dialogue, all the participants, the presenters Mazibuko Jara and Andrew Boraine, as well as the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung for enabling this dialogue to take place.



[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.