South Africa


Political parties face another problem — maintaining central authority and discipline

Political parties face another problem — maintaining central authority and discipline
The DA’s axed Ghaleb Cachalia. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier) | DA Leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

The DA leader, John Steenhuisen, recently removed Ghaleb Cachalia from his shadow Cabinet because he defied party discipline with a comment about the Israel-Hamas war. This highlights how parties that contain people with diverse views, identities and faiths find certain controversies very difficult to manage. At the same time, other parties, such as the ANC, Al Jama-ah and Cope, appear unable to discipline their members at all.

Last week, DA MP Ghaleb Cachalia tweeted, “I will not be silenced. Israel is committing genocide. Fully bloody stop.” The tweet also contained two emojis denoting drops of blood.

He also wrote on Facebook that if people did not believe there should be an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East “you should be ashamed”.

In response, the DA leader, John Steenhuisen, removed Cachalia from his position as the DA’s spokesperson on public enterprises, but he remains a DA MP.

In a letter that was leaked remarkably quickly, Steenhuisen told Cachalia that this was not so much because of what he said, but because he had defied an instruction telling DA office bearers that only the party’s Emma Powell would be allowed to comment on the issue.

This gets to the heart of one of the problems that diverse parties like the DA face. 

While usually in South Africa the points of difference relate to elements of identity around race and ethnicity, this case is slightly different.

It may be that Steenhuisen and the DA’s leadership were so quick to instruct people not to talk about this issue because they were aware that some parts of their diverse base support Palestine and some support Israel.

This kind of conflict could cause a rift in the DA, similar to the divisions being experienced in parties in other countries, including the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK. 

There is no way the DA leadership can keep all of their members happy — there will always be occasions when sections of the party and its voters are disappointed or dissatisfied with the decisions the party makes.

For Steenhuisen, and the leaders of all SA’s parties (excluding, perhaps, the EFF), there are signs of bigger problems on the horizon.

Acts of defiance go unpunished

In the last few months, it has become clear that some parties are coming close to losing control of people who represent them publicly.

The most well-known case is that of the minister in the Presidency for women, youth and persons with disabilities, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. She has now twice defied the ANC in Parliament. First, she voted (with four others) that the Parliamentary inquiry into the Phala Phala scandal should continue, and then she was conspicuously absent from the vote on the removal from office of impeached Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

While there have been reports that the ANC’s disciplinary machinery is considering acting against her, and while some have said she must face action, nothing has happened. 

As has been pointed out many times, there is nothing to stop her or others from defying the party again.

This holds true for other parties.

One of the main planks of Al Jama-ah’s identity is that it campaigns against equal rights for gay and lesbian people. That’s despite its campaign statement that it is a “political platform for all communities”. Its spokesperson, Shameemah Salie, has made homophobic statements which she says are based on her beliefs.

Crucially, she says these beliefs are the beliefs on which her party is founded.

However, the Al Jama-ah member with the highest public profile is the mayor of Johannesburg, Kabelo Gwamanda, who does not share these beliefs. He has said, again in public, that he completely disagrees, and that in fact, “I have gay and lesbian friends, some of them councillors in council, and we work well together and I don’t see them in a different light. And I see them as human beings.” 

Gwamanda is an interesting politician. He does not have the same religious beliefs as the rest of his party, and the Al Jama-ah leader, Ganief Hendricks, has said that he relied on the ANC to conduct a background check on Gwamanda.

Gwamanda’s director of mayoral communications is Mlimandlela Ndamase, who has worked in communications with ANC leaders and ministers.

Considering how important communications are for politicians, this could lead to questions about how dependent Gwamanda is on the ANC.

Clashing on coalitions

Meanwhile, also in Joburg, Colleen Makhubele appeared to be able to make up Cope’s view on coalitions as she went along. Despite her party being in a coalition agreement with the DA, she was able to join the ANC/EFF coalition without any action being taken against her.

More worryingly, there is now evidence of provinces or regions of parties ignoring their national structures.

As Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee and Queenin Masaubi reported in DM168, the Gauteng ANC is dragging its feet over a decision by the national ANC to no longer work with the EFF.

Considering that the decision of whether to work with the EFF or to pull out of those coalitions is crucially important to the ANC and to voters, this is very significant.

If the national ANC loses control of its provinces over who it works with, it will lose political coherence.

All of this points to many problems looming for those who lead political parties into next year’s elections — in an era with so many coalition possibilities and new parties starting, it will be harder than ever to maintain any form of discipline.

This may explain why Steenhuisen acted so quickly. It also means that the way we define political parties is likely to change. DM


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