South Africa


Pirate Party, anyone? Exploring the potential that lies in smaller parties contesting the elections

Pirate Party, anyone? Exploring the potential that lies in smaller parties contesting the elections
Former SABC chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng on December 13, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele) / United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader, Bantu Holomisa April 10, 2019 (Photo by Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe) / Politician Patricia de Lille on January 23, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais) / COPE leader Mosiuoa Lekota February 14, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams) / Black First Land First (BLF) leader Andile Mngxitama December 11, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Masi Losi) / Politician Peter Marais during the Freedom Front Plus announcement of its candidate for premier in the Western Cape at Parliament on January 22, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais)

The 2019 election campaign has seen a proliferation of small, special-interest and some geographically-based parties. Globally, this is not a new phenomenon, and some – like the Pirate Party in Sweden – have achieved notable success. But will it happen in South Africa?

While the 2019 election seems unlikely to drastically change the structure of our politics, the current phase of campaigning does appear to be revealing certain trends. This is not so much about what is happening in the bigger parties (where the ANC is already the presumed victor, the DA appears on track to stay where it is, and the EFF is likely to grow), but about what is happening with the smaller parties.

The current rounds of televised debates are throwing a spotlight on what could be called a festival of smaller groups – single constituency movements, and even some small geographic entities. Because of the structure of our political system, this trend is likely to continue until it could one day have a very real impact on our politics.

To watch a live TV election debate right now is to be introduced to a set of political parties that we haven’t always seen before, even if many may be contesting only in particular provinces. There is a Green Party of SA, a Cape Party, a Land Party, even a group of people who think they will be able to make an impact with the name the Capitalist Party of South Africa. Then there is the list of parties which feature some who have played a role in our politics before or come from other parties, or who are trying to have an impact on the internal dynamics of their former parties. These would include Patrica de Lille’s Good Party, the Black First Land First Party, the African Transformation Movement and that wonderful party called the African Content Movement.

All of these are run by people who think that, somehow, they can make a big difference. In some cases, there are international precedents to follow; for example, many countries have a Green party of some kind or another. In other cases, they are simply misguided: there is a chance of a snowflake in hell that the Western Cape will ever be allowed to secede from South Africa.

But what gives these parties some hope is perhaps the structure of our political system. Because it uses proportional representation, people who are like-minded across the entire country are able to vote for a particular ideology, such as capitalism. This would not work in a system governed only by geography, where people voted for a Member of Parliament based on where they live.

Then there is the structure of our society.

Because of its incredibly broad set of political ideologies and beliefs, there may well be space for many smaller parties to start. For every South African Communist Party, there may well be scope for a Capitalist Party of South Africa. In other words, as the main parties start to divide and perhaps one day split/splinter, these different ideologies could find expression in these parties. Already, for example, the ANC has created the splinters of Cope, the UDM, and the larger offspring that is the EFF.

In other countries that have a large ideological spread and the number of people to create fertile ground, this has already happened. In India, for example – a much larger country than ours with a much bigger population – there are at least 50 parties that are considered “socialist” or “communist”. Many of them have proper constituencies that they represent (sometimes just at the level of a state or two within the federal structure).

But even in smaller countries with smaller populations, political parties have been formed just around a small group of like-minded individuals. In Europe, the Swedish Pirate Party, formed on the back of a website used by people to illegally download copyrighted films and other material, won the representation of two MEPs in the European Parliament.

In some ways, much of the continent of Europe could actually be seen as more homogenous than our society. Certainly, it has less inequality across that continent than we see in just one country, South Africa.

At the same time, another process appears to be playing around identities.

Over the last 10 years the people at the centre of our politics, the national leaders, may have been perceived as losing some legitimacy. The endless stories and claims around corruption, the loss of moral authority at the centre, incompetence, the divisions in the ANC, the problems within the DA – all of this has led to a search for other identities. This has allowed some leaders to rise to fill the gaps. Some may be based on religion, others play a traditional leadership role, while for others, language and ethnic allegiances are important. This is also tied to what is put under the very broad category of a “loss of social cohesion”.

In other words, there has been a move away from the elements that form a national identity, and the strengthening of elements that form other aspects of a person’s identity. This is likely to be reflected in the rise of new, small political parties.

For the moment then, this could be the dominant trend, and may well start to have a bigger influence in future elections. However, it is not necessarily set in stone.

At present, the biggest determinant of our political future still appears to be the internal dynamics of the ANC. This means that one of the bigger reasons this is happening is simply because of what is happening within that party. However, if, and this is a big “if”, if the ANC is able to heal itself, and if it does so in a way that is appealing to most voters, then perhaps this process can be reversed.

The same might hold, to a lesser extent, for developments in the DA. It is likely that people behind the Capitalist Party of South Africa used to vote for the DA and now don’t feel all that at home there. If it could turn itself into a viable contestant for power, and appear to unite all of the diverse constituencies, it could also play a role in this.

In the meantime, though, it seems more likely that this process of political fragmentation, of people voting for more and more different parties representing smaller and smaller constituencies, will continue. This could well have interesting and complicating effects for governance in the longer run. DM


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