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In political debate as in sport, practice doesn't make perfect: it makes for boring

Instead of playing to win, politicians are seeking not to lose.

Faced with the threat of relegation, our political leaders ground out a low-scoring draw in the ITV televised leaders’ debate. They were disciplined and competent (to varying degrees, naturally). There was lots of legwork but little progress.

It was no surprise that both the Labour and the Conservative camps felt quite satisfied afterwards. It’s a revealing disconnect. When insiders believe that an event went well and outsiders feel the opposite, you know there is something structurally wrong with the game.

No one skipped training. No one was drunk. No one collapsed from nerves. No own-goals, no red cards. Lots of defenders behind the ball. Make the other side take the risks if they want to get the win. But let’s be honest: no one came to win. They sought not to lose. The weight of planning was rarely offset by instinct. There was much technique on view – too much. A technique totally mastered is one that disappears. “Technique is freedom,” reflected the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The leaders on the podium did not look at all free.

An uninspiring sports coach would call it a set of “good professional performances”. And that is why I switched off my television in low spirits, another notch more disengaged. I didn’t learn a thing. Did you?

To assess the event as a set of performances is not to endorse superficiality. Nigel Farage’s abysmal pinstriped suit, which deserved a pre-warning like those news reports that contain flash photography, is not the point. Ed Miliband, unfairly ridiculed by the conservative press, was always likely to exceed expectations. But he struggled to articulate what the Labour Party is for when it can’t turn on the taps of public spending. Nick Clegg, just as in 2010, looked the most at ease. On the deficit, however, he came close to saying that he was keeping all his options open until convenience and circumstance direct his hand.

David Cameron, in his “debt and more taxes” moment, came closest to articulating a clear dividing line between him and the other leaders. Even those who disagree must accept that Cameron said what he believes. Yet the flatness of the debate left the strongest impression.

There is a misunderstanding, across many fields, about the nature of performance and how it can be trained. Early in my cricket
career, well-meaning coaches frequently led me to play worse rather than better. Reflecting on what they – and I – did wrong, I see similar symptoms in the leaders’ debate.

Professional coaches often fail to understand that a true performance is not just a rehearsal that is played out in public. It rests on risk and freedom as well as planning and preparation. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at practice and then just ‘run the program’ during the performance,” Christopher Seaman explains in his splendid book, Inside Conducting. “Take a chance and leave some things fluid.”

A letter recently published in the New Statesman moved me very much. The previous week I had described the England cricket team as grimly over-rehearsed and risk-averse. “Just like state schools,” a teacher wrote in response. That is why the best head teacher I encountered loosened the wheels at his school, reducing “professionalism” and compliance, encouraging space for mavericks. By nature, he was fiercely disciplined. By observation, he understood the dangers of too much discipline.

In sport you have to plan and practise. But there is no magic without spontaneity. If players exclusively roll out a series of prearranged plays and “patterns”, there will come a point where there is no point in watching them. We could just watch a digitised simulation of the playbook instead.

A brilliant wit is not funny because he knows exactly where he is going. Quite the opposite. His mastery of language is so great, his mind so quick, that even a mundane conversation offers countless open doors. Someone open to opportunities for humour is a wit. A person inflexibly delivering a learned “funny” story is a bore. The leaders’ debate was depressing primarily because it was so boring.

Did the politicians need to turn up in person? The following memo could have sufficed: “The leaders are going to present their key messages, clearly but predictably, often rotating their neck muscles effectively as they swivel, mid-speech, having first addressed the questioner, before looking straight at the camera. Trust us: they are going to be competent. We’ve prepped them completely. Yours sincerely, the message/spin teams.” And the professional politicos would have been right. Yet as our certainty about the professionalism of the “message experts” grows, our faith in the politicians diminishes in equal measure.

The media must take some blame for the defensive stalemate. The obsession with “gotcha” gaffes reinforces risk aversion. The familiar complaints – What a stupid mistake! Give us human beings! – are two sides of the same coin. But that does not entirely explain a generation of over-coached politicians. I am usually sceptical about the idea of attaching adjectives to the “electorate”, as though it were one person with an identifiable mood. But this time, like a fish washed up on a beach, the electorate is gasping for authenticity. And that drives the desire to give mainstream politics a bloody nose.

There is one gravely worrying consequence of the retreat by the political class into professionally coached condescension. When voters are deprived of natural, authentic political voices they are vulnerable to the shallow attractions of people whose authenticity, however unpleasant, is their only drawing card. The great risk of collectively playing for a draw is a resounding defeat for mainstream politics. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia