Final Word

Politics goes back to basics in South Africa


The political scene in South Africa has in recent weeks been dominated by the election of local governments, and especially by what happened in our cities. All the talk about coalitions that followed, was really a case of going back to the basics.

It was way back in the ancient cities of Greece that this whole political business and its ‘politics’ started.

The word ‘politics’ comes the Greek word πολιτικός or politikos, a term used to refer to the affairs of or relation to citizens and the process of making uniform decisions applying to those citizens.

The term became a standard one after it was used as the title of a book by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, Politika, published in the 4th century BC.

In it Aristotle discussed the polis or city as a community, the koinōnia politikē (the ‘political community’. 

Aristotle came to the conclusion that public life is more virtuous than the private and that there were “political animals”.

The term first became Latinised as politicus and became politique in Middle French to finally land in Early Modern English around the mid-15th century as ‘Polettiques’ before it became ‘politics’ in Modern English.

Some thoughts from Aristotle

There are many wise quotes from Aristotle, who is also regarded as the first teacher in history. Here are a few on the subject of politics that those elected to arrange the affairs of cities on 3 August will do well to keep in mind:

  • Democracy is when the indigent, and not men of property, are the rulers;
  • He who is to be a good ruler must have first been ruled;
  • The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes; and
  • Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.


Another term we have heard a lot of talk about since the municipal elections, is the establishment of ‘coalitions’ to put governing councils together where no party won a clear majority at the polls.

The possibility that true ‘coalitions’ will ever come about in most of the cities in need of them, as it did happen to a large extent in Cape Town post the 2006 municipal election, does not look all that bright, considering the roots of the term.

The noun ‘coalition’ comes from the Latin word coalitiō, meaning ‘to grow together’. For some of the parties involved plenty of the “character” that Aristotle talked of as a “means of persuasion” will be needed from their leaders.

by Piet Coetzer

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