Final Word

Factional circus back in town with ostriches

ANC caucus.jpg

Much has been said, and written, lately about factionalism in the African National Congress (ANC) and the threat it poses for it stay in government. What is true and what is false?

With this column in mind, all the speculation and rumours around the issue got us wondering about where the terms faction and factionalism originated – guessing that the phenomenon it describes is probably as old as mankind itself.

On the latter we found that in biblical times, amongst other as translated from Greek, it was recorded, mixed with the politics of then in 1 Kings 16:21, where it is written: “Then the people of Israel were divided into two factions. Half of the people followed Tibni son of Ginath, to make him king, and half followed Omri.”

However, the word “faction” in English, we do not get from the Greeks, although the original translated Greek word, ἐριθεία (eritheia) tells us much about the content of the phenomenon, it meaning being given as: denoting "ambition, self-seeking and, rivalry."

Although it eventually settled on the words “faction” and “factional,” there were a few variants in circulation and Shakespeare for instance used the term factionary in the 16th century.

The word “faction” that we use in English, as also happened a week or two ago, takes us back to the days of the circus in ancient Rome.

The word arrived in one form of another in English towards the end of the 14th century, taken over from Middle French, where it is spelled the same. The French got the word from Latin’s factionem (nominative factio), in the sense of indicating a "political party, class of persons," literally "a making or doing," a noun of action from past participle stem of facere "to do."

Originally in ancient Rome, it referred to the four teams of contenders for the chariot races and their supporters in the circus, distinguished by the colour of their attire and professionally organised by private companies.

According to some sources, in Byzantine Constantinople, two such chariot factions, blue and green, repeatedly made or broke the aspirations of candidates to the imperial throne – in short, it already also became associated with politics way back then. .

Political factionalism

Searching for definitions of “political factionalism,” probably the best description we could find is one on that reads: “It means there was a group of people who want the wall painted brown, a group that wants it painted red and a group that wants it painted white. They all want the wall painted, but they have divided into factions over the colour.”

One of the United States’ founding fathers, and its 4th president, James Madison, described a faction as a group that pursues self-interest at the expense of the greater good.

Academic studies about factionalism generally contend that factional politics typically revolve around personality, with a few individuals playing key roles, acting as a magnet for like-minded people, leading the activities of the faction, and acting as a prominent voice for the shared objectives/interests of the faction.

Don’t blame the ostrich

In the present South African political environment, many commentators contend that the ANC’s leadership, and especially President Jacob Zuma are taking a “head in the sand” approach to factionalism that is rife in the party.

The expression of to “bury your head in the sand,” can also be traced back to the days of ancient Rome.

It was Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, and a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, that first observed that ostriches apparently hide from potential predators or when they sense danger.

But Pliny got it wrong. Ostriches don't hide, although they do sometimes lie on the ground to make themselves inconspicuous when they do sense potential danger. Their plumage blends well with sandy soil, providing them with camouflage. From a distance, it might give the impression that they have buried their heads in the sand.

This ostrich behaviour, or strategy if you want, can probably ascribed to instinct. However, the misconception that the largest of all bird species at times hide its head, thinking they will not be seen when they cannot see, transferred to human behaviour in the early 16th century.  It describes the oft human reaction to just ignore a problem in the vain hope it will just disappear.

Final word

And, while they are at one-another’s throats, the waring ANC factions would do well to heed the message contained in an old African proverb from Lesotho: “A fight between grasshoppers is a joy to the crow.”

by Piet Coetzer

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