Political parties play a pivotal role in modern democracies. In South Africa, where (in national and provincial elections, at least) voters can only vote for political parties and not for individual candidates, political parties play an even more important role. Yet, it is unclear to what extent political parties truly empower citizens and enhance the quality of any democracy.
After Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) seized power in Uganda in 1986 in the aftermath of unspeakable atrocities committed by previous rulers, a coalition government was formed which initially included members from various political parties and rebel groups.
However, Museveni – stressing the importance of popular democracy, unity, security and economic development – soon identified political parties as one of the main sources of Uganda’s post-colonial woes and its history of ethnic strife. All the coalition parties eventually withdrew from the Museveni government, citing human rights abuses and government corruption as reasons for their withdrawal.
The NRM (later renamed the “Movement”) thus opted for a system in which political parties (other than the Movement) would play no role in the democracy. It was argued that a “no-party democracy” was a truly African political experiment aimed at responding to uniquely African problems.
A new Ugandan Constitution, introduced in 1995, endorsed this form of “no-party democracy”. While political parties were allowed to exist in Uganda, they were not allowed to hold public rallies, operate branch offices, hold elective conferences or recruit members.
National elections were instead held on the basis of the individual merit of candidates. In theory anybody could stand for office, but not on a party platform. However, Museveni’s Movement in fact remained the main political force in the country.
Over time the Movement used increasingly anti-democratic and illegal methods to suppress opposition. The police was also used to detain and harass those advocating for a multiparty system of democracy.
Uganda finally became a multi-party democracy in 2005 due to pressure from both international donors and internal pro-democracy groups. However, Museveni has continued to win elections (increasingly disputed as unfair or even rigged) and political activity cannot be said to be entirely free and fair in Uganda.
The flawed experiment with “no-party democracy” in Uganda bolsters the argument that democracy can only truly flourish in an environment in which different political parties are free to take part in frequently conducted competitive elections. Political competition between competing parties with different ideological orientations and different identities, so it is argued, is a pre-requisite for a democracy to flourish.
This is why section 1 of the South African Constitution states that South Africa is a democratic state founded on the values, amongst others, of “universal adult suffrage, a national common voters’ roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness”.
In the absence of a workable alternative, political parties will remain an important vehicle through which representative democracy is made operable in a constitutional state. In order to determine who should represent our interests in various legislative bodies we vote for political parties or, in a constituency system, for candidates who mostly belong to (and represent the interests of) political parties.
Political parties ideally provide ideological coherence to an elected government and make it easier for a majority party to govern a country. It can be said to have a stabilising effect on a democracy.
However, I would contend that multi-party democracy is not particularly well-suited to empower ordinary citizens to take charge of their own lives and to take part in decisions that affect their daily lives.
While a system of multi-party democracy scores high on delivering on representative democracy, it can diminish the important role played by ordinary citizens in their self-government through participatory democracy.
Where political parties are deeply entrenched, where their brands are seared in the consciousness of voters and where they are therefore extremely influential and powerful, the majority of citizens have little direct say in how and by whom they are governed.
The overwhelming majority of voters are not card-carrying members of any political party and thus have no say in electing the leaders of the political party they may vote for. Instead, the relatively small number of card-carrying members of a party elects its leaders (if that party elects its leaders at all). It is this set of leaders at best elected by a few thousand people who direct the work of its democratically elected representatives in the legislature and executive.
In the South African system the leader of the largest party also usually becomes the head of the executive, which means that most voters have no say in who becomes president of the Republic. The leadership of the governing party (not elected by all citizens) will often make the most important decisions about our lives behind closed doors at party headquarters without any direct input from the vast majority of voters who voted for the party.
However, for a rich, lively, meaningful democracy to thrive, voters must have a real say in how they are governed and must therefore be able to participate in important governing decisions. This cannot be achieved merely by obtaining a new mandate from voters every five years.
At the heart of the constitutional guarantee of dignity for everyone lies the idea that citizens must be treated as individuals with human agency and thus that citizens must be allowed to direct how they are governed.
But meaningful citizen participation in governance decisions diminishes the power of governing parties (and its leaders) and most parties who serve in government would therefore try to delegitimise citizen participation or would try to dissuade citizens from becoming actively involved in social movements or citizen groups who may express views and aspirations independent of those of the party of government.
Some political parties achieve this goal by invoking the need for “loyalty” or “unity” in the party and branding those who criticise or question governance decisions that are not in the interest of citizens as “dissidents”, “free agents”, “counter-revolutionaries”, or even “traitors”. The ANC often deploys such tactics to silence citizens and to weaken the ability of its core constituents to act as active citizens whose human dignity will be affirmed by playing a decisive role in how they are governed.
Other political parties deploy the technocratic language of bureaucrats to intimidate or silence citizens. The DA seems to be particularly adept at delegitimising the valid demands of voters by implying that citizens do not and can never understand the complexities of governance and therefore should have no say in how they are actually governed. A textbook example of this is the manner in which the DA handled the open toilet scandal in Cape Town.
Successful political parties are usually also capable of exerting some indirect control over their core supporters by purporting to be more than an organisation with mere aspirations of acquiring and exercising power over others and over the resources of the state.
Selling itself as a movement – something like a religious sect – with its own heroic history, its divine and selfless mission, its righteous battle against forces of darkness, its own colours (green, yellow and black for the ANC; blue for the DA; red for the EFF) it provides some voters with a sense of belonging and creates a group of followers who will blindly and uncritically support whatever the party leaders decide.
Instead of critical and independent thought – the foundation of active citizenship – such party loyalists often hurl tired, cliché-ridden, insults at (and concoct conspiracy theories about) those who retain a semblance of individualism and dare to question or criticise leaders who exercise power unwisely or unlawfully.
It is for this reason that the one thing I am absolutely certain about in life is that I will be attacked, vilified and called names by some DA or ANC loyalists whenever I dare to criticise something their party or its leaders might have done. (I find DA supporters more blindly loyal and less prepared to admit its party’s mistakes than ANC supporters, but I know this observation, too, will elicit howls of protest.) Whenever this happens I sigh I think: “Yes, there it is again, the deathly hand of thoughtlessness, of unthinking, of blind loyalty.”
I am not, of course, suggesting that every single person who happens to be loyal to a political party or its leaders is incapable of independent thought. Far from it. What I am suggesting is that such independent and critical thought occurs despite their party loyalty – not because of it.
Neither am I suggesting that we should abolish political parties to save our democracy. Instead, I am making the rather trite point that the quality of a democracy is enhanced when citizens do not see themselves as beholden to political parties (and the financial interests of big corporations who bankroll the activities of these parties).
Active citizens who read and think, who ask questions, who praise good deeds and criticise unwise or arrogant governance actions, who take part in protest marches (within the limits of the law) and organise their fellow citizens in opposition to policies that serve the rich and well-connected instead of the community at large, play a vital role in enhancing the quality of a democracy.
To fall back on the language of the religious sect so beloved of many political parties: we would make a big mistake if we believed that our salvation lay in the hands of party bosses. Instead, it is only as active, involved, informed, critically thinking citizens that we can take back the power from party bosses and turn them from our rulers into our servants. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.