Opinionista Mandla Lionel Isaacs 15 March 2021

South African politics: Parties are not the problem — and independent candidates are not the solution

It’s time we confronted the main issue. The ANC does not remain in power because South African voters keep voting them in. The ANC remains in power because voters have no credible alternative to turn to.

To find effective solutions, we need to diagnose correctly.

Antibiotics will not do much for a patient suffering from a harmful viral infection. Panado will not help a patient with fluid in their lungs.

Therefore, let us be clear: the root cause of our political dysfunction is not the design of our political system, voters who continue to vote for the African National Congress despite its horrendous governance record, or national election rules which preclude independent candidates. 

No.

The biggest problem in our politics is that we lack a credible alternative to the ANC.

In a healthy democracy, the ultimate mechanism for holding a party with the ANC’s horrendous governance record accountable is for voters to remove them from office.

Imagine all those self-serving, entitled and incompetent ministers and MECs out of a job. 

Imagine the media not breathlessly reporting on “factional battles” inside the ANC every day because who cares about factional battles inside an opposition party. 

Imagine a government populated by mostly visionary, competent and ethical servant-leaders who focus on the public good.

We are not a dictatorship like many of the most dysfunctional countries on the continent and in the developing world. We are a democracy. We get the leaders we deserve.

Because the ANC has been so dominant for so long, many of our analysts have given up on imagining political solutions and have turned in despair to technical ones. 

While it is all the rage now in opposition and political analyst circles to call for electoral reform and independent candidates, it’s worth noting some of the virtues of our political system.

Our proportional representation (PR) system lends itself to political plurality and the emergence of new political voices. First-past-the-post systems like those in the US and the UK lend themselves to duopolies (Republican-Democrat, Conservative-Labour) because to win seats in the national legislature, you need a majority in a specific constituency. A party’s geographical concentration of support is decisive, not its overall support. For example, according to Britain’s Electoral Reform Society, in that country’s 2019 election “nearly 900,000 people voted for Green Party candidates and they got just one MP, while 644,255 votes for the Brexit party did not get a single MP elected”.

Our system is admirably inclusive: in 2019, 31,000 votes was enough to secure a seat in the National Assembly.

In fact, a recent proposal on electoral reform from some leading thinkers and practitioners on the subject concluded that even if we restructured our electoral system to shrink the much-criticised party list element to decide only 25% (100) of the National Assembly’s 400 representatives, it would not have significantly changed the distribution of power in 2019. Yet, many reformers I speak to treat impending rule changes to allow independent candidates as a game-changer.

Our electoral system actually lends itself to power-sharing, not one-party dominance. Countries with PR systems tend to have coalition governments, including many successful democracies such as Germany, Sweden and Denmark. In fact, Professor William Gumede suggests coalitions could improve the quality of our governance. But again, coalitions are entirely possible within our current political system.

Many advocates of electoral reform wrongly ascribe certain malfunctions of the ANC – that it prioritises the interests of party bosses and special interests over the public good – to parties in general. It is not clear to me what it is about parties that means they will always perform in this way. Most, if not all, functional democracies are led by parties, and these parties often prioritise the public good. You know why they do that? Because if they don’t, voters will throw them out.

In a democracy, it is political competition above all that keeps parties honest, more so than the most elegantly designed electoral system. Political competition, though, requires credible alternatives.

It’s time we confronted the main issue. The ANC does not remain in power because South African voters keep voting them in. The ANC remains in power because voters have no credible alternative to turn to.

After peaking with 70% of the vote in 2004, the ANC has lost support at every election since. That is voters sending a signal.

The problem is there is currently nowhere for voters to go which, rather than apathy, is the most likely explanation for our declining voter turnout. Voters just aren’t happy with the available options.

John Steenhuisen’s refusal to debate challenger Mbali Ntuli in the party’s recent leadership race – in a period in society when black women are reclaiming their rightful space and demanding to be seen and heard – was therefore self-defeatingly on brand. 

The DA is limited by its fixation with purist, British-style liberalism, which is out of step with our populace’s social democratic leanings, as well as its racial baggage. It turns out that being perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be a party committed to defending white interests above all is a limiting factor in a country that is 90% black and recovering from centuries of racial discrimination and dispossession. 

While (mainly white) DA leaders and defenders protest that it is racially inclusive, the party is itself an unfortunate case study of how white institutions resist true transformation which concedes a meaningful share of power to black people (see the DA careers of Lindiwe Mazibuko, Patricia de Lille, Herman Mashaba and Mmusi Maimane, in order of exasperated/acrimonious departure). 

John Steenhuisen’s refusal to debate challenger Mbali Ntuli in the party’s recent leadership race – in a period in society when black women are reclaiming their rightful space and demanding to be seen and heard – was therefore self-defeatingly on brand. 

The EFF is limited by: its leadership (which does not represent a break with ANC-style big-man politics with troubling, symbiotic links between political leaders and rent-seekers); its ideology (the Marxist-Leninist part); and its fixation with borrowing governance approaches and policy ideas from failed states like Zimbabwe and Venezuela. South Africans appreciate the light the EFF shines on economic power relations and the way it rejuvenated a previously soporific and acquiescent Parliament upon entering it in 2014. I suspect the vast majority of South Africans do not want a Malema-Shivambu government that nationalises huge swathes of the economy and oversees a programme of land expropriation. (This is not to discredit land reform as a policy; it was a critical and underappreciated part of the success of the Asian miracles.)

The rest of the small parties are either one-man bands, serve only the narrow interests of specific constituencies, or have failed to offer an alternative vision that is broad, compelling and coherent. 

And so it has become that among politicos the conventional wisdom, usually delivered in a knowingly offhand way, is that “there are too many parties on the ballot list already”, or similar.

Nonsense.

How many cellphone manufacturers were there when the iPhone was launched? Does it matter? No. What matters is fitness for purpose.

Big parties with large membership bases and many years of experience at this will have a major advantage over independent candidates building these machines from scratch. (And in highly unequal societies like ours, we may find that self-interested individuals with deep pockets benefit more than we would like from independent candidacy.)

Having diagnosed our problem – there is no credible alternative to the ANC for voters to turn to – the solution becomes clear.

We need a new party. As for what the party should look like and how it can avoid the pitfalls of other new parties to successfully reshape our politics, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book.

For now, it is worth reflecting on what parties are for.

Parties offer voters a political brand, to easily identify public representatives who will share their beliefs. The vast majority of voters, in most democracies, are neither politics/news junkies nor policy wonks. Most voters won’t be bothered to learn about the nuances of Candidate A’s leadership track record and policy proposals versus Candidate B’s. It is, however, easier for them to keep track of their broad alignment with a political brand.

Parties provide ideological and policy coherence. Parties exist to contest public power, in order to realise a particular societal vision for constituents. “Independent candidates” sounds sexy because it implies diminishing the power of party bosses we don’t like. The flip side of independence is fragmentation. Addressing pressing, structural issues such as our economic stagnation, entrenched corruption, high crime and excluded youth requires big, well-considered and coordinated solutions. Do we want a Parliament with hundreds of independent members lacking shared perspectives and policy programmes for these issues? 

Parties also offer machinery with scale to recruit, vet and campaign for candidates. Here we’ll focus on campaigning. Even for worthy candidates with a connection to their constituency, winning competitive elections in a crowded political marketplace requires expertise (messaging, strategy), financial resources (for staff, posters, venue rentals, campaign paraphernalia and so on) and most of all, volunteers to get your message to the people through door-to-door campaigning and other time and labour-intensive outreach.

Big parties with large membership bases and many years of experience at this will have a major advantage over independent candidates building these machines from scratch. (And in highly unequal societies like ours, we may find that self-interested individuals with deep pockets benefit more than we would like from independent candidacy.)

In summary, I believe that electoral reform can enhance the quality of our democracy, especially the introduction of a constituency element. I don’t think expanding the role of independent candidates will be the game changer others seem to think it is. Neither do I think the electoral system is the root cause of our dysfunction, or the most important thing political reformers need to address. I believe a party, or coalition of parties, will govern South Africa in 2024 and beyond. 

Parties aren’t going anywhere. Designing a modern political party that offers our weary electorate a genuine alternative is the only way out of our current quagmire. DM

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  • South Africans, and I’m guessing the world too, view political parties through very narrow lenses with large blinkers. What doesn’t fit into that narrowed view is mistrusted or even despised. Make a label stick & few will look deeper. We want to be told what to think & are upset with the outcomes.

  • In South Africa politics is not about politics per se – which party apart from the DA has ever put out a manifesto that the electorate could assess in terms of the way they would like the country to progress – and more about the cult of personality. This is classic “Big Man” Africa politics, and without fail, all over our continent, the bigger the “Big Man” gets, the more corrupt both he gets, and the system of patronage that supports him. “We all need to feed” is the mantra, and the feeding is of course off the backs of tax-payers, who have to dig ever deeper, pay ever more to feed this voracious beast. The writer is quite correct that we need a modern political party, or more precisely parties, but most fundamentally parties that stand both for a measurable “something”, and a system of transparency and accountability that can ensure they are properly held accountable. ALL of Africa, including South Africa, has a very, very long way to go.

  • Perhaps the author should recognise the problem this way: when he worked in government, he defended every bad policy and every act of poor governance. Now it appears that he has left his cushy governmental job and he found his backbone. Perhaps people like Mr Isaacs are the problem?

  • This article makes the key mistake of imagining that the only alternative to the present South African electoral system is the so-called First-Past-the-Post system, as in the UK, at national elections. However, there are hundreds of alternative PR systems. What South African electoral reform needs to bring about is MPs who are answerable to their electorate and not to the NEC of their party. For example, there could be multi-member constituencies with the outcome decided on the proportion of the electorate that voted for, say, one of the five MP positions.

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