The politics of patience – does it have a limit?

In December 1961, after almost fifty years of getting nowhere trying to extract democratic concessions from successive white governments, the African National Congress decided to initiate an armed struggle against apartheid. The Pan African Congress had already made that decision, and – with the formation of the tiny African Resistance Movement – even a small group of white liberals followed suit.

I cite these examples today because they illustrate a deeper point: even a patient people, a people willing to negotiate concessions less than they might otherwise have desired, have their limits.  The idea that one endures injustice forever has to be challenged.

What of the virtue of patience itself? Patience is a virtue, as is justice, mercy, tolerance, endurance – indeed nonviolence too. A careful examination of virtue ethics reveals that all virtues must be lived out through prudence, the practice of wisely weighing up one’s options. We are not only called to be patient, we are called to wise patience.

In other words even as we practice the virtue of patience, which we should practice more readily than resorting to impatience and even (as in the case I used above) force, needs to be reflected upon.  It is easier to be patient with someone who seems to be trying to improve than with someone who apparently has not the slightest desire to change.

We must also ask ourselves, when faced with the public arena, what can be done as much as what is being done.  We know that during election periods political parties promise us all the earth – if not the sky as well!  Quite often this vote-grabbing rhetoric clouds their judgments and ours as they promise things impossible to realise. Other times, those we elect simply don’t bother to do what we elected them for – wise and honest government, keeping up the basic infrastructures that make a country work.

If we lose patience in the former case, more fool us. We have failed to discern flimflam from workable policy. We have no right to be impatient because what we resent is at bottom our own failure to see that what we desired was an unattainable illusion. Or at the very least a dream that is presently impossible. A politics of patience must help us discern the possible from the impossible, aware that sometimes the long term good may demand less than what we might desire. Politics, and prudence, force us to consider the bigger picture.

If we lose patience with the latter – failure of our elected representatives to deliver attainable goals – we are more justified. And if such failure is accompanied by incompetence and corruption, we are indeed right to be impatient.

In a democratic society we have the means to do something about our impatience that those who chose armed struggle in South Africa in 1961 did not have – to vote leaders who have failed to deliver the attainable out of office. Indeed, I believe it might be one’s moral duty for the sake of the common good to do so. We do not need to resort to extraordinary means like violence.

As we prepare for elections in 2014, we need to discern workable policies and the distinction between good and wilfully bad governance before we cast our votes.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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