Before formally defining what “centrism” is, we have to first understand what it actually means. We need to be able to describe it in a way that’s easily understandable to the layman - and that is often the most difficult part.

I identify myself as a centrist. I believe that many people in South Africa are centrist too, but aren’t able to express themselves confidently because of the fact that the whole notion of “centrism” is not well-defined for South Africa yet. However, I often say that if you (sometimes) find yourself agreeing with political parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the African National Congress (ANC) on certain matters, and at the same time, find yourself agreeing with the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Freedom Front Plus (VF+) on other matters, then you are likely a centrist.

It must be noted that the challenge of being a centrist is that you may often be accused of being “indecisive” or “sitting on the fence” when it comes to matters of national importance. The funny thing about this is that these remarks are often made by people who view themselves as “free thinkers.” There’s a substantial amount of irony in people telling you that you have to fall under a specific ideology, and thereafter, call themselves “free thinkers.”

So, what does centrism actually mean? Well, it means that you are at the center. The center of what, you ask? Well, the center of Left and Right-wing politics, of course.  

Left and right-wing politics / The origin

What is Left and Right-wing politics? Well, the labels originate from the French Revolution, which started in 1789 and ended in 1799. The terms “right-wing” and “left-wing” were mere references to the seating arrangements in parliament. Those sitting on the right were advocates of the monarchist regime, whilst those sitting on the left were advocates of socio-economic equality. In other words, there were two prominent socio-economic ideas in France.

The French Revolution

Tennis Court Oath in Versailles on June 20, 1789. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Of course, over time, “Left” and “Right-wing” labels have been placed on a variety of political figures and ideologies. But one thing that’s important to note is that the labels were appropriate only for a particular time and place in which they were rendered. A “left-winger” in the United States of America is different to the “left-winger” in South Africa, for example. They may have certain similarities, but in essence, the appropriateness is based on particular ideological ideas of a particular country during a particular time.

So, to define the South Africam centrist, we need to define the South African Left and Right-winger of this time. As mentioned before, “left” and “right-wing” politics are merely the predominant socio-economic and political ideologies of a particular country within a particular era. To cut a long story short, the predominant ideologies of South Africa are “collectivism” and “individualism.” Collectivism is an ideological framework that considers people as “groups” in the development of policy. For example, BBBEE is a collectivist policy, since it sees people as being part of a “group” where lived experiences are shared. On the other hand, Individualism is an ideological framework that considers people as having individual experiences. Individualism would therefore ignore concepts such as “white privilege”, as it naturally dismisses the idea that people belonging to particular “groups” where lived experiences are shared.

Looking at the particular policies of the EFF and the ANC, it is easy to see that these are collectivist ideas, since many of them advocate for the development of black people as a collective or “group”, under the assumption that black people have shared lived experiences. On the other hand, policies of the DA and the VF+ are more individualist, since they do not advocate for race-based policies, for example.

So, as a centrist, you would agree that some experiences are shared by certain groups. For example, you might view women as a particular “group” and believe that they need to be empowered through policy (collectivism), but at the same time, advocate for individual property rights, in a free-market system, where individuals are independent from the State as much as possible (individualism).

As a self-proclaimed thought-leader, I would like to see centrism receiving more attention in greater society. I believe that the problems facing South Africa are too diverse and complex for one to be “too liberal” or “too socialist.” My advocacy for centrism is founded on the belief that there isn’t an “instant remedy” for South Africa and that pragmatism, based on actual solutions, is what we genuinely need right now.

I wouldn’t claim to have all the answers for what centrism in South Africa means, so I would highly appreciate your thoughts on this matter. Please leave a comment below to add your contribution to this growing school of thought.