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Neophyte parties: Caricatures or kernels of a changing democracy?

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Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

There are no fewer than 48 political parties on the national ballot for the 2019 Election and 11 of these have names that start with ‘African’. This name emulation may cause confusion in the voting booth and the Electoral Commission has taken measures to undo this form of proximity-piracy as small parties throw themselves into the ring.

The multitude of small political parties that had previously rendered South Africa’s elections celebrations of multiparty democracy is now running the risk of turning this democracy into a caricature of opportunism and low-level power grabs. The “African Independent Congress model” and the “power elevation model” are key drivers in this small-party tendency.

There are exceptions, of course. Given that most of South Africa’s big-bang new opposition parties to date – United Democratic Movement, Congress of the People, perhaps Agang SA – have not stood the test of time (if any test at all) there is always a chance that South Africa’s party-political future could be in some of these neophytes. Much of the odds are stacked against this possibility but it is worth a few checks.

The AIC and power elevation models have opened new vistas to small existing and new wannabe small parties. The African Independent Congress (AIC) model showed how a new entrant, with a name and insignia that sound roughly similar to the African National Congress, and appearing adjacent on the ballot, helps leverage significant power to renegotiate a provincial boundary, besides being a municipal power-broker. Interrelated, the municipal power elevation model showed how micro-parties (often single issue or community interest parties) can be the kingmakers when no political party has an outright majority. It is no indictment therefore to have hopes for a mere few percentage points of support.

The escalation of small-new party entrance is evident in registration for participation in the 2019 Election. No fewer than 48 political parties will be on the national ballot come 8 May 2019. There will be 36 on the Gauteng ballot, 34 each in Limpopo and the Western Cape, and 31 in KwaZulu-Natal. Northern Cape is the most modest of the provinces at 21. From 2009 to the 2014 elections there had been modest increases in the number of party-political participants – 17 to 18 for the Eastern Cape, which has now jumped to 26, or 15 to 16 for Mpumalanga, now up to 28.

The new entrants are overwhelmingly unknown in national and provincial politics. Only about half of the 48 on the national ballot have been featuring in national political discourses. Quite a few are newly established, others have been around the block of unsuccessful electoral participation before, leaders have become alienated from their source-parties, or have been around but have not participated. Interestingly, money appears to be of limited concern: R200,000 to contest for National Assembly and R45,000 per provincial legislature are small “entrance fees” for ambitious newcomers.

Opportunism shows in name emulation. Perhaps it is a natural identity-related choice for a South African political party to start its name with “African”… Yet on the ballot, it places the party in close proximity to the still-dominant ANC. (As the AIC can tell, this is beyond helpful.) Eleven of the 48 national ballot participants have names that start with “African”. The Electoral Commission has taken measures to undo this form of proximity-piracy, “scrambling” the sequences and taking some of these parties out of alphabetical sequence. This could also elicit voter confusion.

The second model has been demonstrated amply in the continuously under threat alliances that followed in the aftermath of the 2016 Local Election. In the absence of outright majorities, the minor parties stepped into king-making, power-brokering roles. Illustrations abound.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the Patriotic Alliance has scored massively. It also plays serial musical chairs: now in alliance with the DA, now withdrawn, now threatening to bring UDM (in ANC alliance) Mayor Mongameli Bobani to his knees. The AIC helps maintain the ANC in power in Ekurhuleni, Rustenburg and Umhlaba-Walingana municipality, KwaZulu-Natal. The Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa (Icosa), linked to Truman Prince, has played havoc similarly in the Kannaland municipality.

Many of the hitherto unproven parties come with baggage; hardly a party politically virginal participant in sight. Many have been expelled or have been otherwise discredited by their former political homes; others exited after fallouts. African Democratic Change (ADeC) was founded by Makhosi Khoza, who first left the ANC in disgust with unrepentant Zumaism in 2017 and then left her own new party after four months. Old split-off origins from the ANC have not had illustrious histories, despite their big-bang starts (the only exception so far is the still-growing Economic Freedom Fighters). The United Democratic Movement and Congress of the People, a few elections down the line, are tired shadows of their former selves.

A new generation of micro-split-offs – individually based, rather than fully fledged parties – is entering the ring. African Content Movement (ACM, Hlaudi Motsoeneng) and the African Transformation Movement (ATM, Not-Jimmy Manyi, linked to the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ) already have some municipal footings. The ACM is represented in the Rand West Local Municipality and the West Rand District Municipality due to the Randfontein People’s Party’s (very new itself) having joined forces. The ATM did not win its first seat in Nyandeni near Umtata two weeks ago but walked away with 30% (against the ANC’s 65%, down from 81% in 2016). Its church links explained much of this performance.

Church-religious links are fairly common amongst the new entrants. Besides the established, but continuously small African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), and the ATM, there are the African Covenant, Christian Political Movement, Economic Emancipation Forum (more religion than economics in its profile) and the well-established Islamic Al-Jama-ah (nine councillors in local government).

Split-off descendants from many of the established parties are decorating the ballot – as waves of fractioning of political parties unfold. Good is a type of split off the Democratic Alliance and a remnant of the Independent Democrats, which was a split of sorts off the PAC. The new Power of Africans Unity has links to the UDM; and the National People’s Front has some roots in the National Freedom Party (NFP), which had split previously from the Inkatha Freedom Party. Themba Godi’s African People’s Convention (APC) is a long-time split from the Pan Africanist Congress. Even the EFF by now has a split-off of sorts, in Black First Land First.

Given the prevailing political culture of radical change, “revolutionary” is in relatively short supply among the new entrants. The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, with its Numsa links, could be a new hope for the left – but only a small part of the left is enthusiastic. There is also the People’s Revolutionary Movement, a type of EFF in overdrive. The Land Party is not revolutionary per se but certainly zooms in on land justice as one of the vote triggers of the time.

Of course, many feel South Africa’s system is so “failed” that participation is not on the table at all. In a call for a postponement of the elections the Party of Action (registered with the IEC; neither on the ballot nor the national political radar) has proclaimed that they want to stage a revolution, “we are saying it’s not the right time to vote”.

It has been argued that the small parties are disruptive and are reducing the major parties’ chances of winning majorities or withholding those majorities, depending on the side of the fence. Research has found that between 30 and 40% of registered voters are not satisfied with any of the parties. Perhaps the bigger parties deserve shedding some votes, at least to some of the newcomers. Coalition fallout and serial processes of majority manufacturing might, however, be the aftermath. DM

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