In South Africa, true political dynamite still doesn’t come in small packages
For obvious reasons, most of the reporting on our political drama appears to focus on the three major parties, the ANC, the DA and the EFF. At the same time, there’s a plethora of new, smaller parties entering the political stage. And while it does look unlikely that any of them could have any kind of significant impact acting on their own, the behaviour of some of them does deserve examination.
Before embarking on any analysis of the smaller parties, it may be worth placing them into particular categories. The parties themselves, of course, will discourage attempts to put them into any kind of box. Still, broadly speaking, there are possibly three major groups.
The first is the group of parties which are tiny, sit on the fringe, have one single issue (or group of issues) and are unlikely to have any impact whatsoever. The stand-out party in this group in 2014 was the Ubuntu Party, which claimed that all interest is theft, and wanted to change the entire economic system. The Keep it Straight and Simple Party from 1994 is another good example. The SOCCER party is also unlikely to have any impact, while the Dagga Party can now surely celebrate final victory in its quest. There are literally scores of these parties, although many of them will probably not be able to scrape together the deposit needed to be lodged with the Electoral Commission to fight the election.
Then there are the smaller parties that have been able to sustain themselves for some considerable time. These are parties generally completely independent of the other bigger parties, such as the IFP, the Freedom Front Plus, the African Independent Congress, the African Christian Democratic Party, the United Democratic Movement and some others. The very structure of our political system, the proportional representation nature of it allows these parties to survive. Unlike in places like the UK or the US, no matter where their supporters live, their votes are counted. This allows their constituencies to be represented, and for them to be seen to be representing them, which may keep their voters fairly loyal.
These parties have proven their staying power in our politics and often provide a useful role. For example, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa has a loudish political voice primarily because he leads a political party, and because of his own history with the ANC. As a result, he is always heard. ACDP leader Reverend Kenneth Meshoe has been able to carve out a niche on issues like the legalisation of dagga or gay marriage, which allows him to sometimes be the lone, and yet noted, parliamentary voice that opposes such changes in society.
Of course, not all of these parties will be able to sustain themselves in the longer term. The AIC, which was formed out of unhappiness in and around the positioning of the provincial border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape around the town of Matatiele, is showing signs of strain. The reason for that is that it agreed to go into a coalition with the ANC in the Ekurhuleni Municipality. Now there are signs that it might split. No doubt, some in the ANC would be rather pleased if that were to happen.
Finally, there are newer political parties which are being accused of being linked to former president Jacob Zuma. The Black First Land First (BLF) movement was the first of these. It did not register to contest the 2016 elections but has loudly supported Zuma and the Guptas. The #GuptaLeaks have shown a connection between the Guptas and BLF leader Andile Mngxitama. He himself has loudly supported Zuma at every turn. The major plank of his manifesto appears to be a plan to essentially racialise every single possible issue and to attack white people in any political way possible.
Late in 2018, Hlaudi Motsoeneng launched the African Content Movement. Motsoeneng appeared to benefit from the largesse of the Zuma era when he was kept in place at the SABC by then Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. Like Mngxitama he appears to have a small band of dedicated travelling supporters who go everywhere with him, giving an appearance of a movement larger than it truly is.
Later this week, former The New Age and ANN7 owner Mzwanele Manyi is expected to launch a new party. He says that it will be his “new political home” and that he will “introduce its national leadership” on Wednesday.
While there are, on the surface, different agendas behind the creation of these parties, it is entirely possible that the aim is the same, to weaken, by whatever means necessary, President Cyril Ramaphosa. While there is much speculation that this might be through winning a certain percentage of votes in the election and forcing the ANC to go into coalitions, the maths is against them.
However, just by contesting elections as separate parties, it may be possible for these individuals to muddy the waters, to disrupt the national debate. Just adding to the number of voices to the raising of the national temperature may be enough to derail the efforts of those who would prefer to keep cooler heads. This may be particularly the case around issues involving race, where racialising the elections, making it all about identity, could complicate matters for those actually trying to govern the country.
However, it should not be forgotten that many people appear to exhibit a real frustration with the bigger, more established parties. Poll after poll shows a high number of “undecideds” or “won’t says” among our voters. It is entirely possible that some of these smaller parties could make some inroads as a result. So, for example, those who want to use their hard-won vote, who used to vote for the ANC, may feel some attraction for the UDM. Others may feel that their vote should be used to further the hand of God and go for the ACDP, while there may be those who feel they should vote according to their ethnicity or language group, and vote for the IFP or the Freedom Front Plus.
The implications of that could be fascinating. If these parties are able to gain in support, it is possible that, together, they could have some kind of significant impact. Of course, this would mean that their interests would have to coincide. While generally speaking this won’t happen often, it could be enough for them to act as a bloc in certain circumstances. For example, were there to be an issue similar to Nkandla in the future, parties like the ACDP, the Freedom Front Plus, the AIC and the IFP could use their weight in some measure together. This may not just happen on the national stage, but even in municipalities. That would have the consequence of further complicating coalitions and governance more generally.
There was a time, just 10 years ago when many thought that South Africa was moving towards a two-party system. Helen Zille, then the DA leader, suggested from time to time that this meant the country was moving towards a kind of system where you voted one way or the other. This has now changed, partly because of the proportional representation system that we use. It is true that some smaller parties will fall away over time, particularly if they have had only one leader, and that leader retires from the stage. But others may prove to be remarkably durable, and have the ability to put pressure on the bigger parties to up their game. DM