It takes a strong intellect, an iron will, and sometimes a morbid curiosity to succeed in post-Apartheid South African politics. Ryan Coetzee is one such success. He has spent close to twenty years in politics, first as a youth activist for the Democratic Party, then as the head of the DP parliamentary operations. From 2004 to 2009, Coetzee worked as a Member of Parliament on the shadow health portfolio, and twice headed up the Democratic Alliance party’s general election campaigns. Now, as a member of the Democratic Alliance party, Coetzee works as the chief adviser to the Western Cape Premier Helen Zille.
As an American with no background in international politics, my image of Parliamentary proceedings is slightly skewed. I associate Parliament either with powdered wigs or with elderly tongue-waggers with dental problems. As a result, I was skeptical in meeting Coetzee for the first time. His ‘been-there, done-that’ air of cynicism is slightly masked by the shocking presence of youthful good looks, and his teeth appear to be in working order. One of my first questions upon meeting Coetzee was, “What is your job description?” Most would instead say something like “What do you do for a living?” but I find this line of questioning often breeds dishonesty, as in the case of a sanitation worker who once responded, “I save the world for a living”. Coetzee came back quickly with an outline of his years in politics, ending with the title MP (which I knew to mean Member of Parliament, despite my relative political ignorance). I gave him a raised eye-brow, and he amended his former statement by saying, with a smirk, “Just kidding. I’m actually a professional juggler”.
Based on my own prejudices about MPs, and about politicians in general, I happily accepted the latter job description, and even asked for a demonstration of his juggling skills. It was disappointing, to say the least. But after working with Coetzee for two weeks during my academic winter term in Cape Town, I have come to realize that both of his job descriptions are accurate. He is, in fact, a politician, and a damn good one at that. And part, if not most, of his duties as the chief advisor to Helen Zille, is to juggle statistics, public opinion and political policy in order to help Zille and the Democratic Alliance succeed in the Western Cape.
Coetzee knows his politics. He is well-versed in both DA policy and propaganda and a finely-tuned personal philosophy. The son of a Christian minister and a minister’s wife, he has studied faith doctrine and theology, and has made a hobby of intellectual theological debate with friends and colleagues. His educational background is in English Literature and Education, and he is to this day an avid reader. He supplements his political knowledge with volumes on history, public policy and biographies, and has a slight to moderate obsession with US presidential knowledge. His cynicism, which stems from so many years in the political spotlight, allows him to scrutinize others the way he himself has always been scrutinized. It seems to be a political survival instinct, although when I proposed this idea to him in our interview, he responded, “What cynicism?”
As a citizen of South Africa, a country with such a rich history of segregation and oppression, Coetzee has little time for outdated classifications. “Race and class aren’t the first things that come to mind when I describe myself, but since you ask specifically about those categories, I am a white, well-off South African with access to all kinds of opportunity. (I think the word class obscures more than it illuminates)”. Coetzee has used these opportunities to his advantage, drawing on his education, his friends in high places, and his own abilities to further the Democratic Alliance political agenda.
When asked about important issues facing South Africa in the year 2010, Coetzee responds with a laundry list of complaints about the current state of his home-nation. He emphasizes the weak state of the present ANC national government: “First, there is the vacuum of leadership in government. President Zuma is not a leader. He fails to take clear policy positions or make decisions. His government has no clear economic policy. Indeed it is pursuing contradictory economic policies. It is driven by factions. His personal actions radically undermine the country’s fight against HIV/AIDS. And as a result he is increasingly isolated inside his own government. So one question our country faces is how to proceed in the absence of a real leader”. Coetzee, clearly frustrated by what he believes thus far to be a failed system, lists some of the specific problems with which South Africa has been struggling for decades, such as “Unemployment (especially because the economy shed 900,000 jobs last year), high levels of violent crime, endemic corruption and a dismally failing education system (which last year produced fewer high school graduates than ever)”. Despite his relative academic success, he sees education as a key factor in the progress of South Africa.
His will to succeed in politics has stood the tests of time, corruption and frustration, and he makes no excuses for his unsympathetic views of other national political party systems. In fact, when asked how the country would be different if it were run by a non-Zuma, non-ANC leader, Coetzee responded with vigor: “Yes, the country would be much better off without President Zuma and it seems a lot of people inside the ANC are reaching that conclusion too, although somewhat belatedly! I would of course replace the ANC government with a DA government”. The ANC, In Coetzee’s opinion, is as corrupt as it is inefficient. When asked about the controversy over Zuma’s arrest of the Cape Town jogger on opening day of Parliament, Coetzee responded that the ANC response represents “The arrogance, the tendency towards power-abuse and the disregard for ‘the little people’ that has become part of the ANC’s identity. It hints also at the kind of authoritarianism and personality-cult politics found all over Africa. It opened a window for many people about the kind of country South Africa could once again become, if power-abuse goes unchecked and the Bill of Rights is disregarded”.
Coetzee struggles every day to prevent these kinds of political and social regressions in Cape Town, even as he sees the nation of South Africa in danger of authoritarianism and power-abuse. His love of politics is trumped only by his love for South Africa, and no amount of cynicism can mask the feeling of hope he expresses when he speaks of the future of Cape Town under the guidance of the Democratic Alliance. “If we succeed, the province will be different in that it will be achieving much better education outcomes, it will boast a greatly improved public transport, better functioning local governments, a lower burden of disease, safer roads, a lower incidence of substance abuse and a much more efficiently run public service. It will be the best place to live, work and raise kids in South Africa, by some distance. But there is a long road to travel before we get there, so the focus right now is on getting the agenda right and implementing it successfully”. Thankfully, the jobs of getting this agenda right and implementing it successfully is in the capable hands of people like Ryan Coetzee.