South Africa


Want a powerful new player to shake up SA politics? You may have to wait for a long time

DA's Mmusi Maimane (EPA), ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa (GCIS), EFF's Julius Malema (Leila Dougan for Daily Maverick)

In 2019 South Africans are due to go to the polls in an election that could decide how the country will attempt to resolve massive problems it is facing. In such a crucial time there are many signs of dissatisfaction with the choices available to the voters.

For various reasons many politicians who could be labelled as “establishment” come with problems. Scandals continue to mount (Malusi Gigaba, we’re looking at you!), with the result that voters may think there is no one who represents, or reflects, them. And yet, because of the very nature of our society, it might be stupendously difficult for any new party or social movement to rise up to contest successfully for political power. This inability to refresh the political gene pool could have an important impact over the longer run.

It is becoming obvious that the problems within the ANC regarding corruption are not limited to any particular group or faction. Over the last few weeks alone, we have been witness to the incredible multi-party looting that is the VBS scandal, involving both the ANC and the EFF.

Before that it was the revelations about now-former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. There is obviously more on this to come, with the Zondo Commission now summonsing both Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe and SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande, amid signs it may be about to move into a higher gear.

At the same time the DA has struggled to contain, or at least manage, its divisions, which have become apparent in issues around race, and the diversity/quotas argument. And of course the never-ending story that is Patricia de Lille’s mayoralty is, obviously, a thoroughly damaging open-ended process.

But those hoping for a big new entrant into our politics are destined to be disappointed.

The main reasons for this have to do with the structure of our society, and the structure of our politics. Key to this is the broad political spectrum of our country. It runs from the South African Communist Party to the “liberal” wing of the DA. There are people in this country who would vote for Donald Trump, and others who would vote for Fidel Castro. This is driven by the racialised inequality in our society, and the consequences of such a gap are being reflected in our politics. This means that while the ANC will try to have the broadest possible appeal, there will be people who believe it will not serve their interests enough, and crave something that is more specific for them. The same is true of the DA, which is also trying to manage a fairly broad constituency of beliefs.

The longer this situation goes on, the more some voters will lament their shortage of options. In essence, there are really only three choices, the ANC with its painful legacies and ailments, the also very broad and slightly dissonant DA, and the laser-focused, and radical, EFF. The voters may soon in fact believe that none of them is up to the task. Then there are the smaller parties, often with a sort of ethnic appeal. These would range from the IFP to the Freedom Front Plus. But voters may feel that they lack any particular clout, and that a vote for them is a wasted one.

Perhaps the best analysis of this situation comes from Ebrahim Fakir and Ivor Sarakinsky, who suggest that in some ways society is actually moving past our current political parties, and that they are battling to catch up. As a result, it may be that over the next few years, there are more and more calls for a new party. Of course, we have seen this all before. From the launch of the United Democratic Movement, through to the Independent Democrats and Cope and Agang, South Africans were eager to see the arrival of the Next Big Hope. All that happened was that there have been many wonderful launches, followed by spectacular failures.

There are very important reasons for this. Successful political parties are often founded during violent moments in history, or as the result of a long period of amalgamation of constituencies. The ANC gathered constituencies as it came along, through debates around whether it was for “Africans only” or for everyone, and so imbibed the Indian Congress and other movements. The DA came about really through the DP’s reverse takeover of voters from the old (although it called itself “New”) National Party.

In established democracies, political parties have often followed established patterns, with very little variation, in what became known as the “two party” system. This is how the Republicans and the Democrats fight in the US while Labour and the Conservative Party battle it out in the UK (the last Liberal Prime Minister was Lloyd George, who left office in 1922). This is because it has become very hard to form new movements and then contest power. There has been a sort of consolidation of the political elites and the system that creates and perpetuates them.

In South Africa’s case, it might actually be even harder. Successful political parties are really triumphs of organisation, numbers, and resources. It’s about people coming together and organising themselves in such a way that millions of people then buy into their vision, and identify as such. This is easier to do in relatively homogenous countries, where people agree on what you could call the main questions of society (such as freedom and economic policy). But our case is very different to that. Here, with our incredible diversity, it is surely much harder for groups of people to come together in a way that could lead to them gaining millions of votes. Bluntly, it is hard to get people to agree on the answers to a set of important questions in a way that would allow them to organise.

So then, if that is the case, what is the impact of such already-moulded political space?

First, it could suggest that we are actually locked in to the parties we have, that the current pattern will not change. This in turn could mean, though not necessarily, that some people simply give up voting. That could have consequences for the legitimacy of our elections; at some point the number of people who vote could be less than the number of eligible voters who didn’t.

But our politics still has the capacity to surprise. It could be that the problem is with the expectation of a big new party. Instead, if you examine the structure of our system, it is much more likely that change would come through a group of new parties, not just one. This is because our system of proportional representation often rewards a party with one seat in the National Assembly for roughly every 100,000 votes (the actual figure depends on the poll and the percentage of people who vote). Thus, smaller parties that are started with more specific aims could, over time, make great strides.

Some parties have already done this and achieved some political power as a result of this. The best example is the African Independence Congress, which was created out of a sense of local grievance over the provincial border dispute around the town of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, who want it to be in KwaZulu-Natal. They now hold the balance of power in Ekurhuleni. Then there is the Bushbuckridge Local Residents Association which is also about local issues.

If a set of smaller parties, for example, were to manage to get just 10% of the vote, that could really shake up our politics, and lead to interesting coalitions. It could mean that the bigger parties could be forced to manage situations in a much better way. It would be hard to imagine the ANC depending on a small party for power and then tolerating the leadership of someone like former president Jacob Zuma. These parties could act as a check on the abuse of power. Of course, they could also, themselves, abuse power by selling their votes to the highest bidder (in terms of being lured by both power and money).

But in the meantime, until this happens, it may mean that there is simply no incentive for the parties that we have to actually behave better, to catch up with society. For them, the system works, it is the system that got them there. As a result, they are unlikely to change it. We might have to wait for a combination of new parties that would have to first achieve some success on their own before they are able to have any impact at all on the national picture. DM


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