Final Word

Alliance politics a bit like a marriage of convenience


The politics in and around South Africa’s ‘governing alliance’ have pretty much dominated the local news of late, invoking some curiosity and questions.

Where do the concept of alliances and the term describing it come from? What are the aims of alliances? What sustains them? What are the traditions or trends surrounding them? What is their future? These are but a few of the questions that pop up.

Let’s first try to nail down the current term and its origin.

The dictionary definition of the term ‘alliance’ mostly goes something like this: A formal agreement, treaty or a merger of efforts between two or more people, nations, organisations, institutions or businesses to cooperate for specific purposes, usually aimed at mutual benefit.

In short, it could be described as a ‘marriage of convenience’ – something to which we will return later.

For the sake of completeness, it should be said that the term does not always refer to humans only. One could also talk about the alliance between mathematics and music or between logic and metaphysics. And it could also be used to describe the incompatible as in a ‘misalliance’.

The root of the term, which arrived in English around 1300, is the Latin word ally, which means ‘to bind’.

It came to English from the Old French aliier, which in Modern French became allier, meaning to ‘combine/unite’, in the context for both French and English of creating a bond or union via marriage. By the late 14th century it started including a bond or treaty between rulers.

While misalliance is nowadays mostly used in the general sense of a union, its French origin of misalliance very specifically referred to the institution of marriage, denoting liaisons between people of different social standing.

Alliances in history

The history of alliances goes back to antiquity and is intimately intertwined with military history. It is believed that the first recorded history of an alliance is to be found in the sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns recalling the “Battle of the Ten Kings”, which could date it as far back as 3 000 - 4 000 BCE.  

The concept of a ‘marriage of state’ as a strategic move is also to be found in the myth of Helen of Troy, telling the age-old story of marrying off females from a ruling line for the sake of peace between states.

During the early centuries of European history, marriage for political, economic or diplomatic reasons was a common occurrence between the ruling elites of the continent. An example of this is how the House of Habsburg created a matrimonial alliance between England and Austria.

The Habsburgs were so adept at this line of diplomacy that it led to the expression Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube – “Others may fight wars, but you, happy Austria, marry!”)

Against this background one should not be surprised that the celebrated Irish author, George Bernard Shaw succeeded in turning the association between an alliance and marriage around somewhat when he wrote: “Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open.”

Reality of alliances

American author Stephen Kinzer also captured another important bit of wisdom on the subject of alliances when he wrote: “Alliances and partnerships produce stability when they reflect realities and interests.”

The reality is that alliances, especially in the political context, not always have a goal or goals of a higher order in mind.

In this regard I want to give readers two more quotes by way of example. 

  • Chuck Hagel, American Secretary of Defence: “Our alliances should be understood as a means to expand our influence, not as a constraint on our power.”
  • Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and satirist, on alliances in politics: “… the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.”

I leave it up to the readers to decide for themselves which one of these quotes are the most appropriate in the South African political environment.


by Piet Coetzer

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