Politics means compromise

Guest Column: Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

IN countries with fresh boundaries, eg in colonial situations, disputes about boundaries are quite frequent. How do you settle such conflicts? The sensible thing would be to draw a line halfway between the existing controversial boundary lines.

Whole provinces can become the bone of contention between large countries. Who does Kashmir belong to? Can India be persuaded to give up its claim to a large piece of the Indian sub-continent? West Africa suffers from such battles over land. The Vatican had to intervene as peacemaker between Chile and Argentina.

Can we settle peacefully the conflict about climate change? What is the alternative? Either you give in to the demands of the opponent or you fight a bloody conflict. That is why we keep killing each other in armed warfare.

In the history of conflict in our country, we could have avoided bloodshed. The two parties, the original indigenous people, on the one hand, and the settlers on the other, could have struck a deal. The issue was land. We could have said: both parties need land for keeping cattle and growing crops. Both will be given the land they need for making a living and for survival. No more than that, [no one would have been given excessive amounts of productive land]. And no less. It would have been a compromise, half — half.

Compromise is defined as an “agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions”, in other words, you “settle a dispute by mutual concession”. It is the “expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable” (see Google). A compromise is not the ideal solution. It is not the only possible solution. But under the circumstances it is better than violence, bloodshed and excessive loss of life.

A new government may be formed by several coalition partners with enough voters’ support. This is not ideal. This is not the most wonderful solution. But given enough concessions it may be workable.

Normal coalition politics is impossible without a number of concessions. You reduce taxation. You pay higher wages. You make life livable. Not in great luxury, but you ensure survival. That is perhaps not quite enough, but it may preserve a kind of peace.

It seems a good and workable idea, but will it work everywhere, under all possible conditions? People who easily compromise, may be looked down upon as unprincipled or sell-outs.

Can a woman who has strong principles of self-respect, human dignity, and a sense of equal dignity with men easily compromise her principles? Can you expect her to accept domestic violence and sexual abuse from her husband or friend, just for the sake of peace and avoiding a possibly violent conflict? Can you compromise with a killer and murderer by allowing him to commit a moderate amount of killings among your family members or in the midst of your community by way of a compromise? Killings, yes, but not too many?

If you believe in the infinite value of human life, may you compromise by playing around with young (or unborn) lives while preserving old lives (or vice versa)? Human life is not a commodity which can be used or abused at your convenience. Human life is an absolute value! It must be respected absolutely since it is based on an irreversible principle. There are limits to compromising.

Zimbabwe and its healthcare system are in a stalemate — there is no movement, backwards or forwards. The doctors, strictly speaking, do not even want huge salaries, plain and simple.
That is not the issue, spokespersons maintain. They want enough to be able to travel to and from work. In other words: what they ask for is not negotiable. It is a demand they cannot go back on. If they did, they could no longer function as hospital doctors coming to work at definite times.

For government it is a political issue. The leaders are the heirs of revolutionaries who won a bush war. Freedom fighters are not politicians. If they had been, they would never have gone to war. They would have negotiated and struck a deal and, for better or for worse, compromised.

But all the attempts at compromising failed. That is why the little ANC bishop failed. Even at Lancaster House the leader of the revolutionaries rejected a compromise he was offered.
It only went through in the end, because some frontline leaders put such massive pressure on him that he had to give in, much against his normal practice.

Democratic politics are essentially about striking deals, making concessions and arriving at half-way solutions, mediated and worked out by diplomats and dealers.

But in a world based on a revolutionary ethos (or no ethos at all), there is no room for diplomacy or deal-making. The heirs of our revolution would be ashamed or embarrassed if they were found to give in to strikers or people who walk out on that glorious revolution of theirs. They cannot but continue violently and uncompromisingly.

They would consider a deal a show of weakness and the end of their revolution.

You can only put an end to a revolution by another revolution. That is not to say, by another violent uprising. Violence does not abolish violence, fire does not extinguish fire.

You need a new tradition of non-violence to overcome violent warfare. You need a moral revolution to do away with the practice of shedding the blood of your opponent. The senior doctors in a statement called the present loss of lives in our dysfunctional hospitals genocide.

Only such blunt expression of the truth will free us from being caught in the present moral confusion. Those who walked out on their work of healing have to go back to it by learning afresh the reverence for human life. Which also the heirs of the revolution have to adopt once again for themselves. Many concessions and political compromises are needed. But human life – for all of us, regardless which side we are on — is non-negotiable, there is no minimum number of fatalities that may be acceptable in a genocide. There must not be a genocide, no avoidable maternal deaths, and no shooting on the streets. Period.

 Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is political commentator. He writes in his personal capacity.

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