Political marriages are made on earth, not in heaven

By Andy Rice 16 August 2010

The phased absorption of the Independent Democrats into the Democratic Alliance announced on Sunday, is in sync with the DA’s evident desire to give the resulting new leadership a hue more in keeping with the demographics of South Africa. We’re encouraged to ask whether this will produce a significant change in the texture and future of South Africa’s politics. Does this merger really matter or is it just another reshuffle among the minor parties?

A look back at the post-1994 mating dance between the New National Party and the Democratic Party may be instructive here. The NNP was born in 1997 when the old National Party withdrew from the ANC-dominated government of national unity established in 1994. Through its new name, the NNP was trying to disassociate itself from its very own 50-year record of apartheid politics, painting itself instead as a moderate, non-racial federal party suitable for love and affection from the more politically naïve or credulous. Eventually, after its brief, failed marriage with the DP, it seemed the party’s only real recourse was to disband itself in 2005 and allow the remnants to be subsumed into the ANC. And that’s why Marthinus van Schalkwyk is your tourism minister.

In truth, the New National Party leaders never could figure out who they were, let alone what their political base in post-apartheid South Africa would be. They were weighed down by their apartheid legacy, ambivalent about the party’s stance vis-à-vis the ANC and whether it was approaching an alliance with the ANC – or the DP. Along the way, some NNP politicians had defected to the DP, along with their voters as the DP’s popular vote rose from 1.7% in 1994 to nearly 10% in 1999.  In 2000, the DP arranged a merger with the tiny Federal Alliance and began its courtship with the NNP. That led to the two parties’ short-term alliance and yet another name for the DP, this time the party became the Democratic Alliance.

By contrast, for the NNP, support had fallen to less than 2% in 2004 (from 20.4% in 1994 and 6.9% in 1999) and the party slipped into third place in its former stronghold, Western Cape. Party leader Martinus van Schalkwyk, despite his evident failure to revive the party’s fortunes, became, and still is, the ANC’s minister of environmental affairs and tourism, as a reward for aligning the NNP with the ANC. Then in April 2005, the NNP’s federal council voted overwhelmingly to disband, and the remaining NNP parliamentarians crossed over to become ANC MPs. This was quite a journey from the “apartheid forever” rallying cry of NP prime ministers like D F Malan, J G Strydom, H F Verword and B J Vorster.

Looking back over the country’s contentious, deeply fissured history, it should be no surprise that political parties have evolved out of the nation’s most contentious social issues and divisions. Virtually from the beginning, among white voters, the legacy of the Anglo-Boer War gave birth to the forebears of the United Party on the one side and the early version of the National Party on the other.

This National Party came into being in 1914, first gaining power a decade later. In 1930, the National Party first mitigated the electoral impact of “the Coloured vote”, a residue of the old Cape liberal government, by granting the vote to white women, thus doubling the NP’s political power. In 1934, the National Party merged with its rival, Jan Smuts’ South African Party to form the United Party, while a hard-line faction of Afrikaner nationalists continued with their Purified National Party (PNP), opposing South Africa’s involvement in World War II alongside the Allies.

But, after the war, the PNP (and no, not the supermarket chain) rejoined the National Party faction that had earlier come together with the United Party to establish the National Party that would gain political power in 1948. This victory ushered in a half century of officially sanctioned apartheid. It must be noted, however, that the National Party actually won on the backs of the vote from country districts that were the local equivalent of Britain’s 19th century “rotten boroughs” – districts with much more voting weight than their respective populations should have permitted.

Meanwhile, while the Democratic Alliance traces its roots back to the anti-apartheid movements of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the immediate origins of the DP go back to 1959 when a small group of more liberal members of the old United Party broke away to form the Progressive Party. The cause of the split was the UP’s inability to find a clear-cut alternative to the National Party’s apartheid policy. First known as the Progressive Party, they were represented in the national (whites only) parliament by Helen Suzman, as its sole MP for more than a decade. Growing slowly through accretions of support as the United Party finally disintegrated, the now-renamed Progressive Federal Party then became the Democratic Party. In the most recent national election, the Democratic Alliance gained control of Western Cape and, if its manifestos are to be believed, it is determined to build a broad alliance of opposition parties to take on the ANC in both Northern Cape and Gauteng in 2014.

Of course, the ANC isn’t seeing things this way. Late Sunday afternoon, it responded to the merger announcement, denying that the new alliance threatens the ANC in any way because “The ANC represents the aspiration of millions of South Africans who are poor and who have been victims of colonial and apartheid rule.” Moreover, the ANC insists: “These millions of South Africans fully understands[sic] that the DA and ID in its belly now, had not and will not represent their interest as evidenced by their repeated onslaught on the ANC policies of Affirmative Action and the Black Economic Empowerment policy amongst others.

“The people of our country holds[sic] the ANC in high esteem as evidenced by the results of last year’s general elections….No amount of swallowing of another organisation by the DA will erase these credentials of the ANC from the minds of South Africans.

“We make a call to all those former members of the ID who are outraged by this sell-out act on the part of their leadership to join the ANC in pursuing a South Africa that belongs to all those who live in it and a better life for all South Africans.”

Is South Africa now at a political crossroads? Clearly the majority of the country’s electorate still sees the ANC as the “party of liberation”. It is quite possible that the DA/ID “marriage” will not help them attract many more voters. But it is a sign that South Africa’s political scene is still a living, breathing creature that will keep changing for years to come. By the next national election in 2014, a whole new generation of voters will have been born since 1994. Many, perhaps a majority, of the electorate will then be people who were born and came to adulthood after 1994, and whose memories of the struggle may just be the stories told by those old uncles and aunts who gather around the dinner table on special occasions.

The real question after all is whether South Africa is poised for what political scientists call a realigning election: an electoral moment when voters recalibrate their interests and shift to new allegiances to give political life to their hopes and aspirations – what Abraham Lincoln called “the angels of our better nature” – or continue voting with their deepest fears.

By J Brooks Spector

For further reading, try the home pages of the ANC, the DA and the ID. For further information on South African parties, try SouthAfricaInfo and the various parts of the SA History Archive. There is, of course, an immense body of political theory from Plato to VO Key, too numerous to cite, that analyses political systems and political parties.

Photo: Opposition Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon (L) and deputy Martinus van Schalkwyk (R) unveil their Party’s new logo in Cape Town July 27, 2000. Reuters.



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